February 8, 2012

ON NAVY WARSHIPS, the Web slows to a crawl.

ABOARD THE U.S.S. WASP — This 40,000-ton assault ship can launch deadly sea and air attacks against enemies ashore and afloat. Just don’t expect it to load a website in under three minutes.

The big-deck ship is a formidable floating base for sailors and Marines — who had better prefer to stay in limited contact with the outside world in their off-hours. The communications infrastructure onboard is a reminder that the Wasp began its service to the Navy in 1989: the flight control station has a big, black telephone with a big, black spiral cord attached. Marines temporarily stationed to the Wasp for this week’s giant Navy-Marine war game, known as Bold Alligator, sigh when they need to get online and say that the best way to get in touch with their comrades aboard is to walk the narrow metal halls until they physically find them.

But looks can be deceiving. The ship’s communications gear feels like a throwback to a pre-wired era, and it runs up against some serious bandwidth limits. But it’s also got advantages on civilian communications infrastructure: Iridium satellite hookups mean that the Wasp can sail around the globe and never encounter a dead zone.

The Wasp presents a microcosm of the strengths and the limitations of communications infrastructure aboard Navy ships. And to understand both, those serving aboard her say, it’s best to remember first what a ship is and isn’t.

Well, it’s not an Internet cafe, for one thing.

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