Morale: Email And VOIP In The Combat Zone


February 10, 2009: With the coming increase in U.S. troops in Afghanistan, suppliers of goods for the troops are pitching the units alerted for duty. One particularly welcome solicitation is from a Polish satellite Internet service (TS2 Satellite Technologies), which  has a comm sat that covers most of the Middle East (from Libya to Pakistan). TS1  already has 15,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan signed on. They offer the kind of "military package" that has become increasingly common, and popular, in the last five years. TS2 offers different speed connections (from one megabit download/256 kilobit up, to four megabits down and 768 kilobits up.) TS2 provides hardware and software for up to a hundred users on one of these satellite links (which cost from $600 to $5,000 a month). So the troops, or civilian contractors, can get decent Internet access in the middle of the Afghan nowhere, for $50 a month. TS2 can also provide satellite telephones. Once an order is placed, it takes about a week for the hardware and software to arrive, and access to be turned on.

As far back as 2003, some enterprising soldiers were tapping into mobile military satellite links and selling Internet access for other troops. This illegal access soon went legit when the troops appealed to the PC and Internet companies for some access assistance. They got it, and in the next few years, over a hundred million dollars in goods and services have been donated, to help provide the troops overseas with Internet access.

By 2004, most battalions had set up an "Internet Cafes," usually with enough laptops and Internet connections to allow each soldier or marine at least one session a week. To make this possible, some units run their cafes 24/7. Actually, this is often necessary because many combat units operate 24/7, running day and night operations in shifts. Many troops work 12 hours on and 12 off. So  a round- the- clock Internet Cafe is a necessity. Troops were allowed 20-30 minutes per session, and most just read and reply to email. But eventually, some of the Internet Cafe PCs got webcams and VOIP (telephone calls over the Internet) software. This allowed troops, who had family and friends on the other end with equivalent equipment, to see and speak with the folks back home.

Soon, most military bases in the United States and Europe had set up Internet Cafes with webcam and VOIP gear so that family can come in and hold a "televisit" with their soldier, sailor, airman or marine in Iraq. This equipment was used to show live web coverage of high school graduation ceremonies on many military bases. Parents who were stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan were able to view their kids via the Internet Cafes.

It didn't take the Department of Defense long to come up with a standard design, and by 2006, over 200 Internet Cafes have been set up, most of them in Iraq, but also several in Afghanistan and even aboard oil platforms in the Persian Gulf. Each Internet Cafe was basically a 640 square foot tent, or room, equipped with twenty laptop computers, eight telephones (for voice calls via the Internet), air conditioning and satellite communications gear. Each facility was designed to serve about a thousand troops (mostly soldiers and marines), and usually stayed open 24/7. Local troops maintain the equipment, the biggest problem being the dust. Department of Defense provides replacement parts and technical advice. Email was free, but troops paid (usually via credit card) a few cents a minute for VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol) phone calls. There are also dozens of half size Internet Cafes for smaller bases, especially in Afghanistan and other remote areas where the war on terror is being fought. Some individual units set up their own Internet Cafes, but the Department of Defense package is so much cheaper, and easier to operate, that it has replaced a lot of the earlier initiatives. There have also been a lot of private donations to pay for additional bandwidth, which is needed for VOIP and video communications.

The Internet access has resulted in major morale improvements. Troops no longer feel cut off from home. This is especially important for the many who are married, and have young children. In the past, the kids would, after an absence of six months to a year, meet a parent who seemed like a stranger. A year is long time to a five year old. The Internet proved a major help for the spouse who stayed behind with the kids. There often lots of little details needed to run things at home, that only the deployed spouse knew. With email, you could get that information, or just some advice or encouragement, in hours. The email often brought bad news as well. Now "Dear John" letters (where the girlfriend lets you know she's no longer your girlfriend) arrive by email, or are sometimes preceded by digital photos from "a friend" showing you that the girlfriend is playing around. But the majority of troops leave the Internet Cafe feeling better than when they arrived.

Not all the Internet connectivity is just for staying in touch with the folks back home. The troops use the Internet a lot for professional tasks, and not all of them are official business. Some troops blog, and many other stay in touch with military friends and associates in other parts of the world. The Internet has made possible many online communities composed of military professionals. These are rarely seen by civilians, as they are run via email (listservs) or on restricted bulletin boards. There are some official ones as well, which require a .mil email address to get into. These virtual communities ensure that new military developments get distributed and dissected quickly. This has been a real lifesaver for combat troops, because now they have access to a lot more of their peers, that they can quickly consult for information and advice. This angle rarely gets reported, again, because it takes place out of view. But like most things on the Internet, they are having a far greater impact than most people realize.





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