Can-do initiatives bring wireless links to Afghanistan

To mount a satellite dish for their homegrown wireless service, a group of Marines stationed in Afghanistan had to improvise. 'We found a water pipe buried in some weeds, cut it to size with a hacksaw and anchored it in concrete,' Lt. Phil Geiger said.

Computing resources in remote areas of Afghanistan can be scarce, but with a little ingenuity and innovation, U.S. troops and other organizations are finding ways to stay in touch with the rest of the world.

The 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines assembled its own wireless network, using donations of money and equipment and abandoned materials found on-site, to provide a link to friends and family back home.

'They have to wait in line for two computers, which they can use for 15 minutes at a time,' said John Herring, director of research and development at Flexilis, a wireless R&D company in Los Angeles.

Flexilis partnered with Micron Technology Inc. of Boise, Idaho, and Tropos Networks Inc. of Sunnyvale, Calif., to create Unwire Iraq, a philanthropic organization working to bring wireless communications to the Iraq-Afghanistan theatre.

The group sent four Tropos 5110 outdoor 802.11b cellular access points and 14 WiFi-enabled Mi-
cron notebook computers to the Marines, to provide wireless access to a 1.5-Mbps satellite uplink.

Ready to go

Each access point acts as a router and communicates with other access points, creating a meshed cellular IP network to provide access over a two-mile area. Flexilis configured the access points and PC cards to work out-of-the-box with the unit's satellite access gear.

The 3/6 Marines obtained their satellite access by going online to raise $8,000 over the summer using a PayPal account, which lets users transfer money via e-mail. With the money they raised, the Marines bought a satellite dish and paid for service into December.

The Marines had to improvise to mount the dish, said Lt. Phil Geiger, a medic with the 3/6.
'We found a water pipe buried in some weeds, cut it to size with a hacksaw and anchored it in concrete,' Geiger wrote to GCN in an e-mail.

The 3/6 started with one voice over IP phone from 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., and expects to get a second VOIP phone from Net2Phone Inc. of Newark, N.J. The next hurdle is to negotiate a flat-rate calling plan.

'I'd like to avoid forcing Marines to buy $10 or $25 calling cards, but all of the flat-rate plans explicitly say they're for an individual or a family, not a horde of 600 Marines,' Geiger said.

The unit is scheduled to rotate home beginning this month but expects to be deployed to Iraq next year. The men would like to take the network with them.

'We'll probably need something more portable for Iraq,' Geiger wrote. 'Something that can be disassembled, packed, moved, reassembled and anchored with sandbags would be perfect.'

The military isn't the only group ad-libbing communications in Afghanistan. Ora International, a relief and development organization headquartered in Niceville, Fla., discovered that although Kabul is the capital of Afghanistan, the suburb of Karte-Se, where it is working, had no public water, sewage, electricity or phone service'let alone Internet access.

Barter plan

The workers learned that other aid missions had established satellite links and had unused bandwidth, which they traded for IT expertise from Ora. But linking to their neighbors' satellites was a challenge because of interference.

Then Ora employees learned how to build their own antenna and create what the system's designers call a 'poor man's WiFi.'

At Massey University in New Zealand, information sciences and technology lecturer Stan Swan discovered that a common Asian cooking utensil, the 12-inch deep fry scoop (which costs about $1.40 in Afghanistan), made a utilitarian parabolic dish for a directional antenna.

The mesh is the right size to work in the 2.4-GHz frequency range and can focus signals on a USB WiFi adapter mounted about four inches out from the center of the scoop.

Ora workers found that the homemade antenna worked better than a commercial model when it came to connecting with neighboring access points.

Swan said his 'smell-of-an-oily-rag approach using parabolic Chinese cookware has helped nu- merous folks get connected in marginal areas.'

About the Author

William Jackson is freelance writer and the author of the CyberEye blog.

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