Bandwidth on Navy ships is a scarce, expensive commodity. For sailors using non-essential systems, like recreational computers? Dial-up speeds - if they're lucky. But by the end of the year, for the first time, the Navy will put a 4G LTE wireless network aboard some of its ships, giving a whole new communications tool to sailors and Marines: their smartphones.
By the end of 2012, the Navy confirms, three ships will receive a brand-new microwave-based wireless wide area network (WWAN): the amphibious assault ship U.S.S. Kearsarge, the amphibious transport dock U.S.S. San Antonio and the dock landing ship U.S.S. Whidbey Island. The ships' communications systems won't operate on the network - their connectivity will continue to come from satellites. Instead, Android smartphones operated by individual sailors would run on the network, something currently impossible out at sea.
But the mobile devices won't be aboard ships so sailors can play Words With Friends (or won't just be aboard for that purpose). The idea is to allow sailors and Marines with the 26th Marine Expeditionary Unit to take part in what the Navy calls the network's first at-sea "planning vignette" - that is, boarding an ersatz vessel hijacked by "pirates" to send real-time data - including videos - back to the mothership.
"What we've collectively developed is a ruggedised, ocean-going LTE network similar to what you'd find with telecom providers like Verizon or AT&T," says Phillip Cramer, a vice president at Indiana-based BATS Wireless, which built the network for the Navy along with partner companies Oceus and Cambium. "The biggest difference being that it can expand, contract, and move seamlessly; delivering critical data and communications to the soldiers who need it most."
Right now, the Navy's communications infrastructure at sea is reliant on satellites to provide connectivity. That's a necessity for keeping in contact across vast oceans. But it's also a scarce resource, especially as the Navy nets fill up with data from shipboard drones, and adding bandwidth is expensive. For their part, the Marines are experimenting with a new satellite network to increase their communications to a range of 250 nautical miles.
The WWAN won't supplant the ships' satellite connections. It'll supplement it. And it couldn't replace satellite comms if the Navy wanted it to: It works from distances of up to 20 nautical miles. That's not useful for keeping the fleet connected. But it's very useful for keeping a naval task force connected, or a Marine expeditionary team, or an aircraft carrier battle group.
And there's a fair amount of throughput for data over the network. BATS says its network will be able to provide 300 megabits per second's worth of data. Depending on the number of users, that should be enough to share video files as well as text and voice.
"From a speed standpoint, our aggregate throughput of 300Mb is much greater when within line of sight than the existing satellite communications," says Doug Abbotts, a spokesman for the Navy's Naval Air Systems Command, which has been working on the WWAN since 2009.
This is a big shift for the Navy. Last year, the outgoing chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, told Danger Room that the Navy simply lacked the onboard infrastructure to follow the Army's strides into mobile communications.
It also gets the Navy into the smartphone and tablet market for the first time. According to BATS, the Navy is going to purchase the devices off the shelf and work with the National Security Agency to secure them for transferring classified information. Like the Army, the Navy likes Android devices: Among other things, they're comparatively cheap.
It's unclear what the impending arrival of the WWAN network onto ships will mean for any broader Navy embrace of wireless networks or mobile tech. Being on a ship isn't like being out on foot patrol: A ship always has a communications infrastructure aboard; and mobile devices seem less necessary.
Still, it's hard not to imagine the Navy not seeing this initial deployment as a test case. And the more the Navy adopts off-the-shelf wireless networking tools, the more satellite bandwidth will be freed up. And for the Navy's new giant, overarching initiative to play Ricky Bobby to the Air Force's Cal Naughton Jr. - known as AirSea Battle - it might not be so long before imagery from, say, an Air Force RQ-170 stealth drone hits a Navy destroyer via satellite and a sailor aboard pings it to his buddy's secured Galaxy Nexus on a different ship via a WWAN.
Abbots says that the sea trial will be a test case for the first-ever Navy wireless network. "There are several agencies interested in the evaluation of the system in a Maritime environment," he tells Danger Room. For now, though, chances are the Navy's new shipboard wireless networks will at least mean YouTube is about to see an influx of faux-pirate blooper reels.
Image by US Navy