The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford arrives at Naval Station Norfolk on Jan. 18, 2024.

The aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford arrives at Naval Station Norfolk on Jan. 18, 2024. (Jacob Mattingly/U.S. Navy)

(Tribune News Service) — In an effort to appeal to younger generations, the U.S. Navy will begin offering free Wi-Fi exclusively to sailors living in barracks at Norfolk and Portsmouth installations beginning next week.

The Navy is deploying Wi-Fi as part of the “virtual single sailor program” to enhance the “lifestyle of the modern sailor” with access to online games, shows and movies, according to a Navy advertisement shared with The Virginian-Pilot.

The program launches Feb. 1 with full implementation planned for March. Wi-Fi will be installed in 12 unaccompanied housing barracks at Naval Station Norfolk, Naval Medical Center Portsmouth and Norfolk Naval Shipyard in Portsmouth. The 12 barracks house roughly 4,000 sailors, said Katie Hewett, spokesperson for Navy Region Mid-Atlantic.

The rollout was announced Thursday at Naval Station Norfolk’s Willis Manor building, one of the barracks that will be equipped with the internet service. Other barracks to get Wi-Fi include buildings at Enterprise Hall, Intrepid Hall, Constellation Hall, Independence Hall, Groshong Hall, Schamberger Hall, Penn Hall and Mayo Hall, all at Naval Station Norfolk; buildings No. 282 and No. 288 at the medical center; and building No. 1585 at the shipyard.

“The Wi-Fi pilot supports the sailors holistically, taking into account their social and entertainment needs, professional training requirements, and career progression goals,” Hewett said.

The Navy began working in May to improve quality of life for sailors following recruitment shortfalls and investigations into the suicides of Hampton Roads-based sailors.

Navy Recruiting Command reported in October the service missed its recruiting goals by about 7,000 members. The Department of Defense also reported 48 suicides among active-duty Navy sailors from January to October.

In November, the service began offering off-ship housing, free Wi-Fi and better access to food for USS John C. Stennis sailors while the aircraft carrier undergoes a multiyear refueling and complex overhaul at Newport News Shipbuilding.

“It is the 21st century. Young sailors have never lived without connectivity. They experience the world through their cellphones,” Vice Adm. Scotty Gray, head of the Navy’s quality of service cross-functional team, said in November during a virtual roundtable conducted from the Pentagon.

The Navy’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation Division will oversee the program alongside the Navy’s Exchange Service Command, which acts as the contracting agent and program manager for Wi-Fi services.

The free Wi-Fi and subsidized speed upgrades will filter content, preventing access to sites containing illegal activity, gambling and mature content, including self-harm or pornography. Content filtering follows the Military Honor and Decency Act of 1996 and the Department of Defense’s policy on online information management and electronic messaging.

Wi-Fi with unfiltered web content will be available to sailors for an unspecified additional cost, according to a Navy fact sheet. Paid Wi-Fi packages will not require a contracted commitment longer than one week or one month, and will not impose termination fees. Residents can pay for a third-party Wi-Fi provider if they choose.

The pilot will conclude in October. It’s success will be evaluated based on use, feedback and cost. The Navy said the outcome will determine if the free Wi-Fi expands to other installations in the future.

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