By Stephen Larsen
NEW ORLEANS -- When it comes to communications on a ship, the ideal situation for crew members is when their shipboard communications -- such as e-mail, the Internet, telephone and other applications -- work much the way they do in their offices on land.
This is an area that Product Manager, Defense Wide Transmission Systems, or PdM DWTS, part of the Project Manager, Defense Communications and Army Transmission Systems, also known as PM DCATS, has played an important role in building these capabilities for its customers.
In the Battlefield or on a CONUS based ship, communications capabilities that are the same regardless of where you are located are important to conducting smooth day-to-day operations. PdM DWTS has provided this type of mobile communications capabilities for its customers since 2006. When the US Army Corps of Engineers, or USACE, came to the PdM for a solution the PdM leveraged its experience in the field to provide the Corps with this capability. This capability has grown from two emergency Very Small Aperture Terminal, or VSATs, to the entire Corps of Engineers Worldwide. A particular type of that communications is what is known a "comms on the move". "Comms on the Move" is particularly important when it comes to shipboard operations as by their nature ships are constantly moving.
The U.S. Dredge Wheeler
One of the systems supported by DWTS is located on board the U.S. Dredge Wheeler, the largest hopper dredge in the USACE fleet of 12 dredge vessels. The Dredge Wheeler, operated by the USACE's New Orleans District, keeps waterway channels clear from Key West, Fla., to Brownsville, Texas and up the Mississippi River to Baton Rouge, La.
"The Dredge Wheeler is a ready-reserve dredge, fully-operational and fully-crewed with a crew of 38," said Capt. Edward Morehouse, master of the US Dredge Wheeler. "We can get underway in 72 hours for any operation."
When underway, Morehouse said, the Dredge Wheeler operates 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It scoops up material from the riverbed or seabed much like a giant vacuum cleaner with a unique design of three large drag arms and pumps.
"On a good operating day, the Wheeler can dredge 100,000 cubic yards of material, or about 7,000 dump truck loads," said Morehouse.
To keep the ship running while at sea, connectivity to IT (information technology) applications and Internet connectivity are crucial, said Morehouse.
"We use IT and the Internet for every business function of the Corps of Engineers," said Morehouse, "such as payroll, travel and purchasing through CEFMS, also known as the Corps of Engineers Financial Management System, and also for data transfer, data bases of operations and dredging reports."
Previously, the Wheeler depended on a cellular communications link for remote access, dial-up connection.
"Good luck with that," said Morehouse. "It was slow and cumbersome. Basically, all we could do was e-mail. We would create documents, spreadsheets, on a computer and when we went to dock, sit at a fax for an hour to an-hour-and-a-half to fax them to one person who would distribute them. Basically, IT was a method to create documents without a typewriter."
"The issue was bandwidth and speed, the ability of web pages to download and to maintain connections," explained Morehouse. "The satellite terminal eliminated having to go to shore and faxing, but we'd wind up with people sitting there staring at the computer waiting for pages to download. It was a waste of manpower."
"Another big problem was trying to make a VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol, phone call," said Tim Stirling, Electronics Integrated Systems mechanic on board the Wheeler. "Phone calls wouldn't go through or were broken up," said Stirling. "It sounded like you were talking through a tin can."
DWTS's VSAT System Delivers Solutions
About 10 years ago, the Wheeler was outfitted with a VSAT, providing satellite connectivity, which Morehouse said made a "night and day" difference.
"It was the equivalent of when we first got GPS, you wondered how you could live without it," he said.
Enter Greg Formosa, Chief, Radio Engineering of the Army Corps of Engineers - Information Technology, also known as ACE-IT, office, whose mission is to centralize and improve radio and satellite services and support for USACE elements. Formosa contacted the PdM DWTS part of the Program Executive Office, Enterprise Information Systems, or PEO EIS. Formosa and ACE-IT had worked with PdM DWTS in 2008 and 2009 to relocate USACE frequencies from the 1710 to 1755 MHz range to free that spectrum for commercial use to meet demands for new wireless services.
Now, Formosa and ACE-IT asked PdM DWTS to form a partnership with the goal of cost-sharing existing Army-procured, DISA- provided, satellite bandwidth and services.
"Additionally, I looked to PdM DWTS for their experience and knowledge in accelerating VSAT communications," said Formosa. "For USACE, satellite-dependant systems are crucial to our daily, as well as emergency, operations -- particularly aboard vessels, and also for other USACE locations, including remote sites, such as dams."
USACE has many VSAT systems and services that were procured through the years that are currently being reviewed and migrated to DISA-provided service. Formosa worked with PdM DWTS project leader Al Thompson to migrate 22 VSATs to a DWTS network managed from a network operations center, or NOC, in Rock Island, Ill. They are also working to migrate eight existing and new systems in the near term, with the remaining VSATs to be migrated when their contracts reach expiration.
In September, 2011, they switched the entry point to the USACE network from a teleport in Cheyenne, Wyo. to the DWTS NOC in Rock Island, Ill., which, by eliminating thousands of miles that signals had to travel, immediately cleared up VoIP phone calls aboard the Wheeler.
"In addition to the technological gains, this switch will save USACE approximately $20,000 annually in recurring data circuit costs," said Formosa.
"When they switched (the entry point) over, the VoIP calls became really clear," said Stirling. "A lot of guys said, 'this is the first time I could make a call that was actually clear.'"
The migration of the VSATs to DWTS's network also cut satellite air segment bandwidth costs for many customers in half, while substantially increasing throughput, according to Formosa.
"Before the migration, we were paying twice as much per terminal for equivalent throughput," he said. "Most of these customers were sharing 1 Mbps (megabits per second) down by 512 Kbps (kilobits per second) up. Now, for a substantially reduced annual cost, these customers are sharing 4 Mbps down by 2 Mbps up satellite air segment on a non-congested Army network."
For USACE, PM DWTS also provided new VSATs aboard three vessels and upgraded VSATs aboard 10 vessels and at nine other locations. One of the USACE vessels aboard which PdM DWTS upgraded the VSAT was the Wheeler. PdM DWTS upgraded the Wheeler's VSAT with new components, including a 16 watt block up converter, or BUCs, on its transmitter, for more transmission power -- most VSATs have four watt BUC.
Meanwhile, as part of a recently-signed memorandum of agreement, or MOA, PdM DWTS will provide to USACE monthly reports, outage alerts and monitoring capability, similar to what PdM DWTS has in its NOC, so ACE-IT can monitor the status of its VSATs that ride on the PdM DWTS network.
"With monitoring capability, we'll know, for example, if there's a problem on board a vessel before the customer even reports the outage," said Formosa. "Also, if employees on a vessel say 'our phones are terrible, our computers are slow' we'll be able to see where bandwidth is congested. Typically, if there's a problem, users will say 'the satellite is bad today,' but, quite often, it's not the satellite. We'll have much better tools to diagnose the problem. All of those pieces have been missing for years. Now that we're centralizing services, we'll be able to fill in those pieces and produce a more reliable, cost-effective and compliant service for our customers."
Morehouse thinks that the teaming of ACE-IT and PdM DWTS to provide VSAT services for the Corps just might be the start of something big.
"To me, there are a lot more customers out there in the Corps who can use these capabilities," said Morehouse. "We've been the test bed, so the other captains are asking me 'how's it going?' And I'd say, 'let me tell you, this is great.' Basically, we can get twice the bandwidth at half the price and with much greater speed."