YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Geographic restrictions have kept many servicemembers from using the Internet to watch their favorite TV shows while posted overseas. The commander of Naval Forces Japan decided to change that for sailors posted in the country, seeing it as a growing quality-of-life issue.
Following Misawa’s lead, all Navy bases and base housing communities under the CNFJ umbrella — including Navy bases in Yokosuka, Atsugi, Sasebo, Okinawa and Diego Garcia — are no longer subject to such restrictions from digital streaming companies.
“Unblocking” such sites, as it’s commonly called, allows overseas servicemembers and their families to access U.S.-based streaming content without paying for a Virtual Private Network (VPN) or a Domain Name Service (DNS) proxy.
Rear Adm. Terry Kraft recognized how wider Internet access has become a major issue for today’s servicemembers. AFN’s TV and radio offerings have expanded in recent years but still are just a fraction of what anyone in the U.S. can access.
“It’s important to deliver the best of the Internet to our sailors,” Kraft told Stars and Stripes. “When you come to Japan, we want our sailors to have a consistent experience as they have in the US.”
After Misawa’s successful conversion, CNFJ formed a focus group — called the Stream Team — to ask the community about the base’s Internet services. Based on the initial feedback, more and more sailors and their families get their entertainment, communicate with loved ones and receive education online., which is what led Kraft to ask his Stream Team to have the restrictions lifted at all of his bases.
“We’re not stopping at lifting geographic restrictions, we also want to look into how we’re delivering Internet on our bases,” Kraft said. “We’re looking at where are we establishing Wi-Fi hotspots, is it consistent from base-to-base, are sailors getting the bandwidth they require, whether it’s in a public spot or through a private connection.”
Having geographic restrictions lifted alleviates the need for base residents to subscribe to VPN services or download browser extensions, which can open up users’ computers to adware and data collection. Aside from saving a few dollars and increasing security, this also frees up network bandwidth and maximizes the full speed for which they are paying.
Petty Officer 1st Class DeShawn Oliver, a customer of the Navy Exchange-contracted Internet service provider, Americable, says his family loves being able to easily access digital media in their Yokosuka home.
“I watch Netflix at home and on iPad, Xbox, whatever I’m using,” Oliver said. “It’s still kinda slow, so I’d like to see stronger Internet. They should really boost the speed.”
Word of the lifted geographic restrictions hasn’t quite made its way around Yokosuka, though. Seaman Thomas Taylor, who learned of it early last week, hoped his gadgets would work just as they did in the States.
“I’ve had a Netflix account for years but I haven’t been able to use it since I’ve been out here,” said Taylor, an avid gamer who uses his Internet access to download updates and stream entertainment. “This would be great for me because I live on base. I’m going to try it when I get home today.”
The unblocking only benefits base residents. Those who live off base still fall under the digital rights agreements between each company and the government of Japan. Additionally, anyone who lives on base and uses an alternative Internet technology like WiMAX instead of an Exchange-contracted Internet service provider or a public hotspot on base would not be able to log in directly to Netflix without extra effort.
Airman 1st Class Zachary Garten — from the 374th Maintenance Squadron in Yokota — will stick to his WiMAX service. Garten is a heavy Internet user, saying he could use 100-gigabytes of data in a week, which would put him on pace to exceed the monthly bandwidth cap set by the Exchange contracted Internet service provider four to five times over. In his opinion, unlimited data is the single most important need for his Internet usage.
According to Garten, his WiMAX provider has comparable speeds to the Internet service contracted through his local Exchange, Allied Telesis, but is significantly cheaper and provides unlimited bandwidth.
Tech Sgt. David Schnabel of the 730th Air Mobility Squadron in Yokota would also like to see unlimited data usage at a competitive price. “Better still if they offered Internet service comparable to what the local nationals have just over the fence,” he said.
Servicemembers who live off base and their Japanese neighbors typically have Internet speeds that are three to five times as fast with unlimited bandwidth for about half the price.
“I understand Allied Telesis is contracted and on-base utilities are not easily changed, but at the end of the day I don’t care about contractual obligations,” Schnabel said.
According to Julie Mitchell, a spokesperson for AAFES, the bandwidth caps are necessary to “ensure all customers receive the same high quality level of service and affect only a small percentage of customers.”
Exchange-contracted telecommunications companies, like Allied Telesis, provide US television, telephone and Internet services in Japan with the convenience of native English-speaking customer service, contract-free service and multiple payment options, many conveniences not offered by their off-base counterparts. Additionally, the Exchange is looking to improve Internet service, but neither AAFES nor Allied Telesis could elaborate.
Stars and Stripes reporter Trevor Andersen contributed to this report