Tech glitch shuts out Bosnia e-mails

Last week cartoonist G.B. Trudeau treated readers of his "Doonesbury"comic strip to a fictional Internet exchange between troops in Bosnia and the folks at home.

"Doonesbury" depicted a fictional Navy Lt. Tripler, identified as a "NATO IFOR (Implementation Force) morale officer," effortlessly using Internet connections from Bosnia to "chat" with stateside users. That effortless exchange does not match reality, according to electronic-mail messages sent to FCW from Army communicators in Tuzla, Bosnia, the headquarters of the main U.S. ground forces in that country.

Real troops in Bosnia are prevented from sending e-mails to their friends and families stateside because of technical and policy problems that have for months kept them from sending packets over any portion of the Internet controlled by Sprint.

"Some of the stateside commercial Internet providers, i.e. Sprint Net," will not recognize the Army's Tuzla network because it is too small, one message said. "What this does is to prevent U.S. soldiers from getting to about two-thirds (as I would guess) of the United States by Internet, preventing the U.S. soldier in Bosnia from communicating with his loved ones by e-mail."

Another message added more detail, saying, "Literally all of [Task Force Eagle] (US Sector) is affected.... This has been going on forever, although it took us a while to figure it out."

Sprint acknowledged the problem but said it stems as much from the structure of the Army packet networks in Bosnia as it does from its network. The company added that fixing the problem requires an organized response from officials at the Defense Information Systems Agency and Army network managers.

Marc Hidalgo, senior product manager for Sprint Data Dedicated IP (Internet Protocol) Service, said, "We want to do whatever we can for our troops in Bosnia. We have put routes in place to allow data to flow from Bosnia to our network. We will keep this routing in place until the troops pull out."

Hidalgo said Sprint thought it had resolved this issue a month ago and was "troubled" to see it resurface. A month ago, Hidalgo said, the company received an e-mail from an Army Bosnia network engineer alerting Sprint to the problem, and Sprint quickly responded to it.

Sprint said it has been difficult to resolve the problem because it was handled outside the normal reporting chain. "We need an official request and a trouble ticket," Hidalgo explained. "We need to get contact names and phone numbers. It's hard to establish a relationship without a contact. We need to know who is who because there are a few things we need to work out."

Initial delays in fixing the problem may have stemmed from not having "the right folks talking to the right folks," said Rear Adm. John A. Gauss, director of engineering and interoperability at DISA. However, once DISA raised the issue, Sprint fixed it immediately, Gauss said. Meanwhile, to avoid future problems, "we have to do some redistribution of IP addresses to help with the permanent fix," he said.

Earlier last week DISA confirmed that the problem and its resolution rest squarely with Sprint. The agency said in a statement that "Sprint has a policy which, in effect, refuses to recognize certain small IP router networks. The result of this is that e-mail from Bosnia does not reach Sprint customers. This occurs even though the networks are legitimately registered with the Network Information Center (NIC). Sprint is the only one able to fix this problem."

A network engineer at a specialized, global Internet service provider said the e-mail delivery problems experienced by troops in Bosnia reflect the explosive growth of the Internet, the technical solution Sprint engineered to handle that growth and the IP router addresses the Army assigned to its Bosnian networks.

The thousands of routers that control the flow of traffic on the Internet do so by keeping a table of numeric addresses of the various subnets that make up the Internet. New networks "announce" their existence to other routers, which then store these new addresses in memory for use in routing traffic.

The Rule of 32

Last fall, in a move to better manage network traffic, Sprint decided to "aggregate" new addresses in blocks of 32 subnets, filtering out addresses on smaller Class C networks.

At about the same time, when the Army started putting together its Bosnian networks, it did not hand out network addresses in blocks of 32. That is because some users of the network did not want the existence of their networks known to the Internet at large. But that means those small networks will not be recognized by Sprint.

So now, when an Army soldier in Bosnia sends an e-mail to his wife, who uses an Internet service provider in Texas that is hooked up through Sprint, the mail goes into "a black hole," Hidalgo said.

He said all Internet providers do "some filtering," but he added that Sprint is the only large provider to use the block of 32 subnets as its filter mechanism. Filtering is a standard commercial practice to manage the growth of the Internet, Hidalgo said. "If the Army wants to get into the Internet, they have to follow the commercial model."

Network Solutions Inc., Herndon, Va., which manages the military NIC for DISA, has advised the agency to get around the problem by undertaking its own aggregation, said Mark Kosters, principal investigator of the InterNIC for Network Solutions. This approach would involve aggregating IP addresses and passing them to Sprint through another Internet service provider—one that uses 32-subnet blocks recognized by Sprint.

However, the vendor cannot actually undertake the work for DISA because the Bosnian networks are under the purview of the European Registry, Kosters said.

One network engineer said the problems Army users are experiencing in Bosnia reflect "the almost overwhelming growth of the Net. In the old days, if you had an address, you could get to anyone, anywhere in the world. But that's not a guarantee anymore...even if you're Lt. Tripler in `Doonesbury.' "

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