NOW, Wi-Fi, and Sci-Fi

January 14th, 2013 at 2:43 pm

Heading up to NYC to be on the panel for Alex Wagner’s show NOW on MSNBC…lots of interesting topics so tune in if you can.

On the other hand, you may not see this post, because Amtrak’s wi-fi is terribly spotty.  I find that wi-fi works much better on planes than trains.  Is it just that Amtrak hasn’t made the necessary investments in the technology that Delta and US Airways have or is this harder on conveyances that move on the ground vs through the air?  Any engineers out there who could answer that?

I remain a huge advocate of universal wi-fi though I must say that I can’t yet defend the economics of it.  It would be a huge boon to bloggers everywhere but cost/benefit would have to show productivity gains…I can imagine that to be the case, but haven’t done or seen the analysis.

Speaking of electronic engineering questions, would this be possible: design a chip to go in guns that “shuts them off” in certain places, like schools?  Sounds plausible to me.

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6 comments in reply to "NOW, Wi-Fi, and Sci-Fi"

  1. D. C. Sessions says:

    Trains have it easier — they could simply have fixed hotspots along the route. Alternately, it’s just a single router per train (same as plane, but changing connections less often) distributing service to each car. Planes are a lot more complicated.

    As for chips to disarm firearms — the problem is that the firearms don’t have to do anything electrical in the first place (unlike computer-controlled cars.) Never mind the chip (although figuring out you’re in a school or whatever isn’t trivial); the mechanism to block operation of the firearm has to be an active device rather than a passive one that simply doesn’t do its job if it doesn’t like the conditions. As a result, it would be trivially easy to diable or remove even if it “fails safe:” the gun won’t fire if the chip doesn’t enable normal operation (thus dodging the trivial “remove the battery” hack.)

  2. Richard Careaga says:

    WiFi to the passenger depends on two radio links, one from a transmitter to the vehicle and another from the vehicle’s receiver to the passenger’s device.

    The second link is easier, because you just need to keep installing repeaters until you have coverage everywhere in the vehicle.

    The first link is harder. On the available frequencies you need line of sight to the transmitter. If the transmitter is in orbit, that’s easier, unless something, like a tunnel, intervenes between the transmitter and receiver. That doesn’t happen in the air.

    Most existing systems, however, rely on ground cell phone towers. Aircraft systems rely on cell towers that point up, trains rely on systems that essentially point to the ground. As a result the cell coverage is much smaller and the train is constantly dropping and acquiring new signals every few miles. This degrades performance, compared to inflight, which only have to switch every half hour or so. Another factor is that the ground oriented bandwidth is shared among many more concurrent users, while the air oriented bandwidth has fewer.

    Hence, planes beat trains, buses, cars and coastwise shipping.

  3. Tom in MN says:

    Chip is a nice idea, but if they won’t even do a similar thing to make cell phones not ring in theaters (which really would be easy to do), what is the chance of getting it for guns?

    If guns with fingerprint safeties, see

    were popular you could then make these also not work in schools, etc, as you suggest. But as the other poster points out, until guns are “shoot by wire” the idea won’t work.

  4. save_the_rustbelt says:

    Some years ago there were experiments on a handgun that would only fire when the user was wearing a specific ring, I believe it was being developed for police officers as an anti-snatch defense.

    Not certain what happened.

  5. Julio says:

    I used to plan cellular networks for quite a few years. Not so exposed to wifi, but a long time ago I planned the whole emergency cellular services network for a city subway, which had very demanding targets as you can imagine (you want your firefighters to have good communications everywhere, right?)

    Railways do not have any unsolvable technical problem. However, operators are typically quite small and they cannot afford any underperforming site, so they are übercautious and slow with their network planning. Besides, the ones I know do not have a lot of money to hire good radio planners or buy network planning services from the market either.

    But all in all you can find wifi on trains and buses quite easily here in Europe. These guys ( have a business.

  6. Auros says:

    Richard Careaga has this right — the train is making a radio link to a cell tower or some other fixed access point that’s whipping by at high speed, and may get blocked by a hill or tunnel at any time. A plane is technically farther from its access point, but that distance tends to stay relatively constant, and you don’t tend to have line-of-sight problems.

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