Speedy Rail Runner Wi-Fi is ‘first of it’s kind’

By Larry Behrens It took some time, but wireless internet access is now a part of the New Mexico Rail Runner. One week into public access and the reviews seem to be good. “It works really well,” says UNM student Eli Isaacson, “I was really surprised how great it was.” Isaacson lives in Santa Fe but uses the train to commute to UNM, on his Macbook he says he downloaded a needed update and the Rail Runners Wi-Fi took care of it in no time. With speeds so fast the next question might very well be, ‘why did it take so long?’ The plan to have wi-fi on the train was there from the beginning according to The New Mexico Mid-Region Council of Governments (MRCOG), which operates the train. According to MRCOG, logistics of putting wi-fi on a train presented a “huge obstacle” in making it happen. And the train’s path, through 95 miles of sometimes rural areas was also a challenge. In the end, installation cost $2.4 million and yearly maintenance came in at $200,000 per year. Access is free for all passengers and is expected to remain free. Traveling from Santa Fe to Albuquerque, The Independent used the site speedtest.net to gauge how fast the Internet connection was. Our test took place just north of the US 550 station heading south. We were able to get download speeds of 2.14 megabites per second (mbps). At that rate we could download a normal sized MP3 file in just 19 seconds. For comparison, Qwest communications charges about $40 a month for speeds of 1.5mbps for homes in Santa Fe. According to MRCOG, the long awaited system is the first of its kind operation. In a press release about the system (posted by Mobile Tech News) the contractor described some of the features of the system: The innovative network utilizes WiMAX (802.16) technology for the connection to the train and Wi-Fi (802.11) technology for passenger access within the train and at the stations. The network provides speeds up to 6Mbps download and 4Mbps upload on the train moving at speeds up to 90mph and can accommodate over 1000 simultaneous users. In addition to public broadband access, this level of performance provides a true 4G network experience sufficient for data-intensive rail applications such as: emergency phones, video displays in the trains and stations and video surveillance equipment. As part of the project, AzulStar deployed twenty-two WIMAX base stations along the 95-mile route to achieve a superior level of performance and reliability compared to similar rail networks which use low bandwidth satellite or cellular Internet services. But before it could hit the tracks for real, Rail Runner administrators wanted a test, so an initial test group of 25 users were signed up to test the line south of Albuquerque; another 25 agreed to test the track to Santa Fe. One week into full public access, MRCOG estimated that more than 500 people have used the new wi-fi, with an average of 80-90 people online on every train. Back on the tracks, Isaacson said “I’m impressed with the speed.” After a little trouble when he first tried to log on, it’s full steam ahead.