Marines assembling do-it-yourself wireless net in Afghanistan

Marines assembling do-it-yourself wireless net in Afghanistan

Using donations of money and equipment, a Marine unit deployed in Afghanistan is building its own wireless network to let troops communicate with friends and family at home.

Throughout the summer, the 3rd Battalion of the 6th Marines raised $8,000 to buy a dish and pay through December for a satellite link from Bentley Telecom, a division of Bentley Walker Ltd., in the United Kingdom. They now have a voice over IP phone hooked up and one WiFi hotspot for up to 2,000 personnel.

'They have to wait in line for two computers, which they can use for 15 minutes at a time,' said John Herring of Flexilis, a wireless R&D firm in the process of being organized in Los Angeles.

Those lines should be shortened significantly when a shipment of 14 notebook PCs and four mesh IEEE 802.11b access points arrives later this month.

Flexilis has worked 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 troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. The group is providing the additional hardware. Federal Express Corp. is shipping the materials.

Unwire Iraq responded to requests from Lt. Phil Geiger, a Marine medical officer, for assistance creating the network.

The four Tropos 5110 outdoor 802.11b cell access points will provide wireless access to the satellite uplink for laptops with standard WiFi PC cards. Each access point acts as a router and communicates with other access points, creating a meshed cellular IP network. This would provide access over a two-mile area. The current 7250 access point from 3Com Corp. of Santa Clara, Calif., which has no external antenna, has a coverage range of about 150 feet, Geiger said.

Flexilis has configured the access points and PC cards to work out-of-the-box with the unit's satellite access gear.

Geiger said he hopes to get a second VOIP phone from Net2Phone Inc. of Newark, N.J. He also would like to negotiate a flat-rate calling plan for the service.

'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 family, not a horde of 600 Marines,' Geiger said.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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