When you rely on a cell phone to keep in touch while you travel,
you will invariably leave it on the nightstand when you take off for a trip. It's just going to happen; you might as well bank on it. When I first came up with this maxim, I was sitting at an Amtrak station in the Northeast Corridor, which runs from Boston through New York and all of the major metropolitan centers, then through to suburban Washington, D.C. It's Amtrak's most traveled route and the cash cow that's kept the company alive all these years. It's also so crowded that it's easy to miss your train if you don't budget enough time. My train pulled out without me, leaving me with 90 minutes and 45 pounds of baggage on my hands. I'd staked my claim on a rare bench seat, checked my pockets, and come up phoneless.
When cell phone access is not available and pay phones look too seedy to use or are scarce, the natural alternative for a handheld or notebook toter is to look for a Wi-Fi access point to blast off some e-mail. Not seeing a Starbucks, a McDonald's, or any other likely candidate in the station, I fired up my PC anyway, chancing it. And I lucked out. In key stations along the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak and AT&T Wireless provide 802.11g access points.
Like a slow-moving train
I found it slow to make an initial connection, even though at 6 o'clock in the morning, nobody else was using it. Perhaps the brick-and-steel construction of the venerable stations on the Northeast Corridor plays havoc with Wi-Fi signals. Perhaps it's just a slow hot spot--I don't know. The net effect is the same, and it's typical of rail travel: delays. AT&T's actual service is pretty decent, especially if you happen to be a Cingular customer with service activated on the legacy AT&T Wireless billing system. If you fit this description, you can opt to have your access billed to your phone account and sign on using your cell phone number. My missing phone, however, uses Sprint (when I remember to bring it with me), so I signed on using a credit card.
In key stations along the Northeast Corridor, Amtrak and AT&T Wireless provide 802.11g access points.
AT&T's billing options, however, are not as convenient. If you buy a $10, one-day pass on another service, such as T-Mobile, you can carry it between any Starbucks, Borders, and the like in a 24-hour period. Mysteriously, the AT&T hot-spot day passes are good only at the address where you log on. In my case, if I wanted to build up a bank of e-mail messages to send when I arrived at my destination, I would need to sign up for a more expensive plan: a five-day plan at $30, which you can use over any five 24-hour periods over the next 180 days. Frankly, this is a less-than-competitive feature, and it's ill-suited to customers who are traveling from place to place.
But there were no Starbucks around to provide T-Mobile access, so AT&T was the only way to go. And that's just as well for AT&T, because I was tempted to bag the whole idea after the third time it rejected my password. The service will accept only passwords that combine numbers, letters, and special characters, such as !, &, and #. (Do they know how hard those are to make on a pen-based machine? I was working in pen mode on my tablet PC and was forced to switch over to the keyboard.) After logging on, I found the timeout period a little short, too. If I agonized too long on a 200-word e-mail message, I'd have to change back to Internet Explorer and reenter that password. But aside from these quibbles, I must report that the signal was strong in that waiting room, and it got stronger when I scooted over a foot to let a fellow passenger take the seat next to me.
Station to station
This information is of little help, however, if you find yourself stranded at a station other than Boston Route 128, Providence, New York's or Baltimore's Penn Stations, 30th Street Philadelphia, or Wilmington. These are the only stations in the current rollout of railroad hot spots (apparently the nation's capital didn't qualify). It's also of precious little use while you're on the train. The steel girders, brick construction, and metal-encased trains block even the hardiest 2.4MHz radio signals. My usually sensitive Centrino notebook received nary a flicker of a signal during station stops in Philly, Wilmington, and Baltimore. And I wasn't about to risk missing another train to fire off e-mail that could wait for an hour.
Mysteriously, the AT&T hot-spot day passes are good only at the address where you log on.
I have high hopes, however, for the future of this program--at least along the million-passenger-a-day northeastern route. The program is still young in railroad terms--AT&T first installed these hot spots about a year ago, in February 2004. Let's hope it doesn't go the way of the 2002 Yahoo train program. Back then, Amtrak partnered with Yahoo and Compaq to provide Internet access and hard-wired and mounted Pocket PCs to provide Internet access on moving trains. Despite the obvious benefits of providing online access while in transit, the program fizzled out after six months. Perhaps the hideous Yahoo-liveried purple-and-yellow Acela trains were to blame, or perhaps it was a lack of revenue. I hope my $29.95 five-day pass will convince AT&T to expand its program, because I'd love to surf on a moving train someday.
Did Matt Lake miss more than his train? Have you found a better way to access the Internet during transit? Tell Matt about it in TalkBack.