Networking

Tips to get the most out of Wi-Fi on a train

The author's local commuter rail offers free Wi-Fi service for riders. Find out how it works and what to expect from similar scenarios.

My local public transportation system is run by the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority (MBTA) and consists of subways, commuter trains, buses and even ferries. The MBTA took a public relations beating this past winter for providing subpar service, but in their defense we did have the snowiest winter on record in the Boston area.

One element through which the MBTA is redeeming itself is free Wi-Fi service on its commuter rail lines. Implemented in 2014 at a cost of over $5 million, this service applies to more than 250 train cars as well as some ferries and train stations around Boston.

Image: Scott Matteson

The Caveats

The MBTA website provides some guidelines on how to get connected and what to expect. Notably, "Due to the nature of Wi-Fi service, signal strengths may vary and fluctuate and service interruptions may occur. Wi-Fi service works best when utilizing basic Internet browsing, including accessing e-mail accounts. Our Wi-Fi offers limited bandwidth that is shared among all the users aboard your train car. Please remember to be courteous to our fellow Internet users by limiting your use of streaming audio and video."

I had the opportunity to ride the MBTA into Boston earlier this month for a meeting with the folks at Thync, so I tried out their Wi-Fi service and took some notes along the way.

After the train set off I logged into my laptop and connected to the hotspot corresponding to my train car:


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Image: Scott Matteson

Right away I could see that the signal strength fluctuated fairly rapidly, however. Note that I lost two bars in the next screenshot:

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Image: Scott Matteson

I opened up a web browser and agreed to the terms of service (TOS) page for internet access. I then had fairly speedy access, opening up my email and sending a couple of quick messages. I then checked www.techrepublic.com and began browsing articles:

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Image: Scott Matteson

However, not everything worked flawlessly and like the motion of the car itself the internet access had some ups and downs. Facebook, a fairly content heavy site thanks to all of my friends' vacation photos, was sluggish to the point of being unusable:

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Image: Scott Matteson

However, checking my wireless network status showed me that I was having a "limited access" issue with the MBTA's local hotspot:

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Image: Scott Matteson

A few moments later the connection restored on its own as I approached a more auspicious wireless connectivity zone:

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Image: Scott Matteson

I kept working largely through email with fairly good response times but Facebook remained nearly DOA. It became apparent that various hotspots were linked together within the MBTA's wireless infrastructure, and my laptop connected on its own to the next one along the line:

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Image: Scott Matteson

As before, signal strength fluctuated a bit based on my motion:

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Image: Scott Matteson

I fired up www.speakeasy.net and attempted to conduct a speed test to see exactly what upload/download speeds the MBTA Wi-Fi hotspots offered, but the results were inconclusive since the test itself never completed; there just wasn't enough space in the pipe:

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Image: Scott Matteson

After reviewing the MBTA guidelines I discovered the part that read "Our Wi-Fi offers limited bandwidth that is shared among all the users aboard your train car." It occurred to me that my Dropbox account, which always seeks to synchronize large amounts of files since I have a lot of dynamic data, was probably hogging quite a bit of that available bandwidth. As it turned out, the Dropbox connection wasn't even working (at least when I checked):

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Image: Scott Matteson

However, to be on the safe side I exited Dropbox anyway since I had the files I needed at the moment. I also closed OneDrive and any other apps I didn't need which had internet access or might check for updates in the background, then I closed all unnecessary tabs in my browser. The remainder of my ride was fairly smooth, both from a comfort and a Wi-Fi perspective, but I made sure not to overtax the connection with any wild and crazy bandwidth usage. In other words, no YouTube.

The Verdict

For a casual rider with minimal needs, the MBTA's free Wi-Fi service worked adequately enough (I certainly can't complain about the cost). It was definitely speedier and more reliable than the free public Wi-Fi I attempted to use on the buses in Dublin, Ireland last year, which came and went like Halley's Comet. However, if I had needed to access my company's resources over the VPN or utilize higher bandwidth levels, while riding the MBTA it would have been a gritty experience - if at all even possible. A paid service is available for $15 per month which provides streaming audio and video (and from which the MBTA receives 7.5% of the revenue). The cynic in me does believe some organizations may provide subpar free service to compel users to move towards the more trustworthy paid plans, but I didn't get the sense the MBTA was utilizing such a stunt.

We can expect to see this trend growing as the free Wi-Fi movement gains momentum, so look for similar services near you in public transportation. If you've had noteworthy experiences please feel free to share them in the comments section.

See also:

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About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

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