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Why Amtrak's 4G upgrade isn't likely to make on-train Wi-Fi any more reliable

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Amtrak (STOCK)
Amtrak (STOCK)

Amtrak this week announced plans to upgrade its on-train Wi-Fi backbone to 4G, claiming the improved infrastructure will offer faster speeds and a more reliable connection for travelers. The first half of that seems reasonable enough; LTE from Verizon and AT&T (Amtrak relies on both carriers to achieve nationwide Wi-Fi) will undoubtedly boost download speeds for those using smartphones, tablets, and laptops aboard the company's trains. But as The Atlantic points out, reliability remains another matter altogether — one that won't necessarily be solved by 4G.

The intermittent connection hiccups commuters regularly complain about are more likely the result of cell tower placement instead of any deficiency with the technologies Amtrak used previously. And when reception is weak or nonexistent, that signal is being distributed between all of a train's passengers, further straining things and making basic web workflows like checking email or light browsing nearly impossible. It's nice to see Amtrak embracing LTE, and its customers certainly stand to gain from the change, but on-train Wi-Fi isn't likely to radically improve overnight.