Navy enables on-base WiFi access for Reserve personnel

The Navy Reserve facility in Buffalo, N.Y., serves 160 reservists, 80 of whom are usually on duty at a time, but it only has 40 Navy-Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) seats available. That’s a recipe for frustration. 

“There are not enough NMCI seats in the house to enable everybody to do everything at the same time,” said Capt. Matthew Ragan, CTO for the Navy Reserve Forces Command in Norfolk. That is typical of the situation at the 193 Reserve facilities across the country, he said. “We cannot provide enough seats, because of cost concerns, to provide access for everybody.”


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So in May the Navy Reserve received interim permission to operate WiFi at its facilities and turned on an access point in Buffalo. “We got a five-bar signal, which was equal to an additional 120 seats,” Ragan said.

The ratio of NMCI connections available to Reserve personnel went from one seat for every two Reservists to two seats for each one.

The use of WiFi to expand network access might not sound like a novel idea, but “it’s new for the DOD,” Ragan said. “The Navy Reserve is the first organization to utilize WiFi on the Networx contract.”

This is not a case of using cutting-edge technology, he said. Reservists already can use personal laptops equipped with Common Access Card readers to access the NMCI through WiFi at public hotspots. “The security already exists.” What is new is using this technology on base. “We’re introducing an existing, proven technology for a different purpose. The innovation is the application to satisfy customer demand.”

It also is satisfying that demand on the cheap. Providing traditional wired NMCI seats for all Reserve personnel would cost an estimated $30 million. “We’re doing it for under $1.5 million a year,” under the Networx contract, Ragan said.

By September a half-dozen Navy Reserve facilities had WiFi access available, with another 10 scheduled to be enabled over the next month. After that, the pace will pick up, Ragan said. “We expect to have all Navy Reserve facilities fully functional by the end of the calendar year.”

The program is part of a broader effort to provide reservists with access to Navy resources while not on active duty.

“They need access to maintain their training,” Ragan said. This includes general naval training, as well as annual information assurance awareness training and other areas they are responsible for. “They also are managing their careers,” addressing personnel questions, arranging travel for training and other functions.

Doing any of this through NMCI requires CAC-enabled access, using the DOD-issued smart ID card with digital certificates that enables strong authentication to online resources. Reservists are issued the cards and current Navy policy is to provide a CAC reader for personal computers to all Reservists who want one, Ragan said.

“Access is cheaper than assets,” he said, and providing a reader for personal desktops and laptops is cheaper than adding NMCI seats.

He estimated that 95 percent of the Navy’s 47,000 Reservists have a personal computer, and about 60 percent of those have a WiFi-enabled laptop. Ironically, while this policy allows NMCI access from home or from the local Starbucks it did not do anything to improve access on facilities while on duty or during training weekends, when personnel most need it.

About a year ago, “the light came on,” Ragan said. “WiFi would be a total solution.” It was already being used to access NMCI from non-Navy facilities, so why not use it inside, as well?

This required approval from the Global Information Grid Waiver Board, which grants waivers, based on the level of risk being introduced, for any DOD use of services not procured from the Defense Information Systems Agency. The waiver was not hard to get, Ragan said. “We weren’t doing anything new,” except using mission money to provide access that already was available. “It was a low-risk endeavor. We weren’t trying to put a man on the moon.”

Next came approval for using the Networx contract to acquire access points, and then interim authority to operate the access points from the Navy. The access points, carrier service and support are being acquired from Qwest Communications, which merged with CenturyLink Inc. in April. Local facilities will be in charge of managing their own wireless access, but the contract, including help desk and billing, is being centrally managed by the Navy Reserve Forces Command.

“We are providing nearly all the access they need for about $2 a month, as opposed to nearly $100 a month for a hardwired seat,” Ragan said. The WiFi program is popular with the 85 percent of Reservists who have the CAC readers. “They love it,” he said. “It’s been very well received, and we can’t get them out there fast enough.”

The Defense Department’s mantra for information services is, “any information, any connection, any device, any time,” Ragan said. “That’s what we’re striving for.” With the current remote and wireless access programs, all of those conditions have been met except for “any device.” Access to the NMCI still must be through the Common Access Card, and any device used to connect will have to be equipped with a CAC reader.

It is unlikely that the gap between available devices and those approved and equipped to use the Common Access Card will ever be completely closed, Ragan said. Security concerns will always create a lag-time in approval to access DOD resources. But enabling WiFi access on base is a big step in the right direction.

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