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Ubiquitous Internet on planes, trains and the developing world

by Larry Magid

This post originally appeared in the San Jose Mercurty News

I took the train between New York and Washington, D.C., last week and, for the most part, it moved swiftly between the two cities. But Amtrak’s free Wi-Fi service was slower than a wood-fired steam engine chugging up a steep hill. Sometimes it worked OK, but at other times it slowed to a crawl or stopped working altogether. Amtrak uses cellular connections, which it shares with everyone onboard, and even what might be a fast “4G” connection is inadequate when shared by hundreds of passengers.

To get around the problem, I connected my AT&T phone to my laptop, either by plugging it into the laptop’s USB port and turning on the “tethering” feature or by using my phone to create my own personal Wi-Fi hotspot that I didn’t have to share.

If the signal strength is good and if 4G LTE service is available, it can as good as a home connection. With my current AT&T service, I can sometimes get as much as 20 megabits per second, which by U.S. standards is considered high-speed broadband. (People in Korea and several other countries pay less than we do for much higher speeds, but that’s a whole other column.)

Hotels and coffee shops that offer Wi-Fi don’t have to rely on cellular for their connections, but their bandwidth is shared among multiple customers. And it’s not uncommon for public Wi-Fi access to be extremely slow or to go down intermittently, so I often rely on a cellular connection instead. Most smartphones allow you to tether with a cable or to create a hotspot, and all the major carriers support that service, though it comes at a cost.

The AT&T pay-as-you-go plan I’m on gives me 2.5 gigabytes (plus unlimited voice and text) for $60 a month, but if I go over that data limit, I pay $10 for each additional gigabyte. There are plenty of other plans out there from AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile, but be sure to pay attention to how much data you get, whether you can tether and how much you’ll pay if you go over any limits. And be careful when using data-heavy applications like streaming video, which can quickly consume gigabytes of expensive data.

As my train was speeding down the track toward Washington, I happened to come across a news release from Amtrak announcing that it’s seeking bids for an upgraded Wi-Fi service for trains in the Northeast (sorry, California Amtrak riders) that would offer “a dedicated, wireless trackside network that provides a high-capacity, broadband-speed Internet connection between Washington and Boston.” Unlike the current cellular solution, this network would allow users to download large files (there is currently a 10 megabyte limit) and allow Amtrak to lift the block that currently prevents passengers from accessing streaming media from Netflix, YouTube and other services.

On my way to the East Coast, I flew Delta Air Lines and, even though I was lucky enough to get an upgrade to first class (a perk for frequent travelers like me), my Gogo Inflight Internet connection was the online equivalent to steerage class. It was slow at best and at times didn’t work at all. Don’t get me wrong, this is definitely a first world problem — it’s a miracle that we can get Internet at all at 35,000 feet, and my great-grandparents couldn’t have even imaged that it would be possible to travel coast to coast in under 6 hours. But when you’re accustomed to uninterrupted high-speed Internet at home or work, its frustrating to be throttled when accessing the cloud from above the clouds.

The good news is that Gogo customers will eventually get an upgrade. A few months ago, Gogo Inflight, the company that provides Wi-Fi service to several U.S. airlines, announced that it’s developing a higher-speed service, using a mix of satellites and ground-based towers, that will potentially offer speeds up to 60 Mpbs.

And speaking of satellites, shortly after my train pulled into Union Station, I came across a story about Google’s decision to purchase Skybox Imaging, a venture-backed Mountain View company that launches lower cost satellites into space. Google will initially use the satellites to gather images for its mapping products, but eventually use them to beam the Internet down to remote areas of Earth.

Two months ago, Google bought drone maker Titan Aerospace, which makes high-altitude drones that can also beam-down Internet signals. And in March, Facebook spent $20 million on UK-based drone maker Ascenta, also to deliver Internet signals to hard-to-reach places. Google also operates Project Loon, which aims to create a network of high-altitude balloons that float about 12 miles in the sky to “give the Internet to the entire world,” according to a Google video.

I for one can’t wait for all this technology to be deployed so that people from all nations can have high-speed Internet access, whether they are on a train, a plane, a bus, a camel or in a remote village in the developing world, ideally at a cost that all people can afford.