Information Warfare: Fat Pipes For The Fleet


January 29, 2010:  The U.S. Navy recently purchased over half a billion dollars worth of satellite communications capacity (or "bandwidth") from Intelsat, the owner of the words' largest fleet of communications satellites (51 of them, and growing). Over the next five years, the navy has dibs on over $100 million a year in bandwidth. The ships of the fleet are being equipped with more powerful satellite communications equipment, to take advantage of the increased bandwidth. The additional 1.3 meter (4.3 feet) and 2.7 meter (8.9 foot) satellite dishes will provide real-time video (from UAVs, aircraft or satellites) capability for major ships, as well as the ability to quickly transfer large data files with anyone on the planet.

The increased bandwidth also means high-speed Internet ("fat pipes") service (subject to mission demands) for the crew. This will be a big change for sailors. It was only in the last five years that the U.S. Navy has finished equipping all of its ships with Internet access for the crews. As a result of that, the average carrier battle group, and its 8,000 or so sailors, were able to send and receive over a thousand emails an hour. Sailors could also surf the net, and conduct business online (like buying stuff.) But the seagoing Internet connection was via a low bandwidth satellite link. Most of the bandwidth was devoted to official duties, with only a small portion permanently allocated for use by the crew for personal use. Thus, while email gets in and out pretty quickly, going shopping was a tedious experience, because the large product images used by many shopping sites took forever to load. While you can often turn off the loading of image files, that often makes it difficult to figure out what you are buying.

 Sites that specialized in sales to sailors at sea recognized the problem, and created "low bandwidth" versions of their sites. For example, the U.S. Navy Exchange Service Command sells uniforms for sailors. They created a low bandwidth site, which used low res images, or no image files at all, if possible, to make the site quick to access by sailors at sea. This also increases sales, which makes it all worthwhile for whoever's in charge of the budget.

The low bandwidth sites will be around for a while, until the smaller ships get their high speed satellite access. But over the next few years, sailors will be able to use the same, profusely illustrated, shopping sites that their civilian counterparts enjoy. In addition, some sailors at sea will, as their army and air force counterparts have been doing for years, use video conferencing to connect with the folks back home. This is a big deal, and a major morale boost, especially for sailors separated from young children.




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