The U.S. Coast Guard is a seagoing service, but going to sea means giving up modern conveniences for many. This activity was undoubtedly the case for the crew aboard the Coast Guard Cutter Tampa, made additionally difficult by the COVID-19 pandemic; the team had fewer port calls to manage things on the digital home front.
Tampa's luck changed, though, when they were selected to become one of two test platforms, the other being the Coast Guard Cutter Waesche, for stand-alone cutter underway WiFi. Tampa, working with the Office of C5I Program Management and C5ISC Alexandria, installed the system components in early August and gained network access in early September while underway for a patrol in the Caribbean Sea.
Stand-alone cutter underway WiFi allows crewmembers to connect personal devices, such as cell phones and laptops, to unfettered internet, much like you'd find in your home. Unlike the .mil network, it permits crewmembers to visit non-work-related websites and platforms, allowing them to engage in online banking, video chat with family members, download music, send and receive text messages and phone calls, and stream entertainment.
According to the crew, this digital connection to the larger world has enormously benefited morale and well-being. This capability can make going to sea less isolating in a digital age and has been one of the most-anticipated updates to shipboard life.
"It's life-changing," said Petty Officer 2nd Class Rhonda McKeehan, an operations specialist aboard Tampa. "It allows me to re-connect with my family at home, monitor my online banking status, and ensure I pay my bills on time, things we struggled with on the .mil network. In a world that increasingly relies on the internet for basic functions and facts of life, having access while out to sea makes you feel a bit more normal and less like life is on pause while you're underway."
And how does that translate to family life? According to McKeehan, the availability of WiFi has "taken a load off our families ashore," allowing for more regular updates with loved ones and participation in significant life events.
"It's a comfort to our families to know we're safe, and we're working hard for them. It's incredible. It's reaffirming to know my family loves me and is thinking of me every day and being able to tell them that I'm doing the same. It takes the guessing out of the game," said McKeehan.
What does it take to make this system a reality? The installation process was not arduous for shipboard information systems technicians. With assistance from C5I partners, the process took less than two weeks and exceeded expectations for an "off-the-shelf" solution. Because Tampa is a trial cutter, the cutter's IT shop will test technical aspects of the WiFi service, such as bandwidth capabilities and digital footprint for counter detection avoidance. The crew will also provide a more extensive report on impacts to C5I partners at the end of the trial period.
"The impact of the system is profound," reported Petty Officer 1st Class Dylan Wood, an information systems technician assigned to Tampa. "Having the ability to do those little things you grow accustomed to at home during your personal time is encouraging."
According to Wood, the full scope of the impact is enormous, providing the crew access to complete online classes to accessing social media.
"It's incredibly humbling to get to be the trial cutter. It's refreshing to know that senior leadership is thinking about these small stressors and implementing solutions that have such tangible benefits. As an IT, having the opportunity to prototype this service and provide it to my crew is an honor. Managing the network to fully leverage its capabilities and provide valuable feedback up the chain of command is an awesome one, and I'm proud to lead a shop that's paving the way for this kind of system."
Tampa's trial period will conclude one year from now, and feedback will be provided to U.S. Coast Guard Headquarters, providing a holistic review of the successes and drawbacks of the system.
"The Coast Guard has undertaken a change that will benefit its seagoing personnel enormously, and the support we've received from our C5I partners, the immediate chain of command, and service leadership as a whole are really exciting. I'm proud to be part of an organization making this happen," said Wood.
"This is an exciting trial for Tampa's crew," said Cmdr. Sky Holm, Tampa's commanding officer. "Stand-alone cutter underway WiFi has a positive impact on morale, and each member I spoke with cherished the ability to better connect with family and friends. The world is increasingly digital, and younger generations are digital natives – they grew up in the age of continuous internet access. For some, getting underway without connectivity and a limited ability to maintain digital relationships is challenging. This capability should certainly improve their personal cutter experience."
Holm acknowledges concerns about operational impacts; however, Tampa took several steps to mitigate those concerns. The stand-alone cutter underway WiFi is only available on the mess deck; its use monitored throughout the day. When needed, the services can be turned off, which is standard practice during law enforcement operations. The expectations for the crew are clear – each member receives Operations Security training and signs an Acceptable Use Policy form outlining the rules and requirements of adding a device to the network. Lastly, all devices' geo-tagging and location services are disabled.
"I joined the Coast Guard to serve at sea. The reasons I fell in love with sea service are different than they are for the younger generation, as they will be for my own children. This technology gives my crew something new to look forward to while serving at sea. Tampa is proud to be charting new territory for the Coast Guard, and my crew and I are thrilled the Service is on this course!"
Initiatives such as stand-alone cutter underway WiFi continue to be supported and implemented by the Sea-Duty Readiness Council. The U.S. Coast Guard is committed to improving cutter readiness and supporting the talented women and men who serve at sea.
Tampa is a 270-foot Famous-class medium endurance cutter homeported in Portsmouth. The crew routinely deploys in support of counter-drug, migrant interdiction, fisheries, search and rescue, and homeland security missions.