Internet caf's are morale booster for troops in Iraq
- By William Jackson
- Nov 20, 2003
Soldiers in Iraq chat with family and friends via satellite links at one of the Internet cafes that units have created in so-called morale tents. Portable equipment makes it easy for the cafes to follow units.
Thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq keep in daily touch with family and friends back home via Internet chats broadcast via satellite from troop tents.
'Before we had this, it was like being in the Dark Ages,' said Staff Sgt. Jose Matias of Oviedo, Fla., a supply officer with the 124th Infantry stationed in Balad in northern Iraq. Mail is slow, he said, and soldiers often must wait in line up to three hours to use a telephone. 'I talked with my family every two or three weeks for five to 30 minutes,' Matias said.
Now, with the satellite link to the Internet, 'I talk with my wife just about every day and chat with her just as much, and I enjoy videoconference calls with my kids,' he said.
Denise Matias, his wife, said, 'My kids were able to see him by video for the first time' since his unit was activated in January.'
The 124th Infantry, a Florida National Guard unit, has one of 500 Direcway satellite terminals deployed for morale, welfare and recreation (MWR) in Iraq by Hughes Network Systems Inc. of Germantown, Md. Each terminal serves up to 250 soldiers, said Michael Pollack, Hughes' director of business development for government and global markets.Bragging rights
Master Sgt. Kelly Grafton, communications chief for the 11th Aviation Regiment, said he claims the honor of setting up Iraq's first Internet caf', using a satellite link from Tachyon Inc. of Vienna, Va. 'It has been up and running since April, when we moved up north into Iraq,' he said.
'We use it strictly for MWR. For six months now, it's been the biggest morale booster we have.'
The Apache helicopter unit, now stationed north of Baghdad, has 26 networked computers supporting more than 350 troops.
Officers at first used the connection for nontactical communications, 'but it quickly grew,' said David Dague, Tachyon's vice president of marketing. 'They ended up setting up an Internet caf'.'
The caf' consists of six notebook PCs in a tent. It lacks muffins and lattes'but soldiers do use the computers to order food and other luxuries in addition to keeping in touch with family. 'I know Amazon.com is probably making a mint off my soldiers' from movies and music, Grafton said.
Satellite links offer mobile and increasingly reliable connections that can be set up in the field by troops on the move. As long as there is a power supply, they can get online regardless of their remote position.
The Tachyon system used by the 11th Aviation Regiment is a 1.2-meter dish antenna and radio with an indoor unit linked to the antenna by coaxial cable. The indoor box has an Ethernet port to link computers to a LAN switch or hub. 'We lease commercial satellite transponder space,' Dague said.
The Hughes systems are similar, with satellite-linked routers providing shared bandwidth of 1 Mbps to 2 Mbps for 20 or more PCs. A ground station in Griesheim, Germany, provides coverage through the Eutelsat W1 satellite from Western Europe to as far east as Afghanistan.
'They're pretty mobile,' Pollack said. 'They take about two hours to install. If the unit moves, they put the antenna on the back of the truck, repoint the antenna at the new site, and they're back in business.'
Hughes deals with individual units rather than the Defense Department. 'The units have contracts directly with us' and own the equipment, he said.
'We sell it at a very low price to the military,' Pollack said. Troops get a discount from the $2,000 to $3,000 retail price for a terminal.
But Internet connectivity is far from universal in Iraq. Several companies and a charity have joined forces to expand voice over IP service to U.S. troops. The Freedom Calls Foundation will provide Internet satellite links for more than 200 computers and 30 VOIP phones at the headquarters of the 16th Combat Support Group and the 485th Corps Support Battalion near Baghdad.
'We've received pledges of equipment and services to the tune of about $200,000,' said Edward Bukstel, vice president of satellite service provider SkyFrames Inc. of Costa Mesa, Calif. The effort will total about $650,000.
SkyFrames' satellite service uses very-small-aperture antennas. Motorola Inc. will provide regional connectivity to the satellite link through its Canopy wireless service. Vonage Holding Corp. of Edison, N.J., is discounting VOIP service, and additional hardware and services will come from other companies.
The project began with an e-mail request to SkyFrames in August from the 16th Combat Support Group, asking for information about satellite systems. Maj. Paul R. Iliff outlined the requirements for each headquarters installation: Seven months' worth of satellite bandwidth to support 25 Non-classified IP Router Network lines, wireless connectivity, 15 VOIP phones and 'every accessory to make our lives easier'throw it in the package.'
Because the project was larger than SkyFrames could take on alone, the Freedom Calls Foundation in September began to handle corporate donations.
'We have staff ready to go over' and help with installation, Bukstel said, 'some on their own dime.'
Initial plans called for having the system up by Thanksgiving. 'We'll miss that,' Bukstel said. 'I'm extremely hopeful this will be installed by Christmas.'
Internet connections will let at least some soldiers enjoy Christmas conversations with their families. Although the 124th Infantry is not expected to return to Florida before February, Staff Sgt. Matias plans to be with his family via video.
'I'm looking forward to seeing my kids opening Christmas presents,' he said. 'I will feel no matter how far away I am, I'm still part of my family.'
William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.