DOD bolsters its Bosnia comm setup

EAGLE BASE, TUZLA, Bosnia— The fiber-optic communications cables that snake their way alongside the rough, plank walkways that serve as the sidewalks here at the headquarters of the U.S. force in the former Yugoslavia not only provide high-speed voice, data and Internet connections but also represent the military's increased reliance on a commercial company to operate its tactical communications system.

Brig. Gen. Robert Nabors, commander of the Army 5th Signal Command, which contracted with Sprint Government Markets to install the system in October 1996, said, "No one has commercialized to this extent before'' in a battlefield or near-battlefield situation.

Nabors, interviewed at his headquarters in Mannheim, Germany, said the Army had a compelling need to commercialize communications in Bosnia. The initial U.S. deployment tapped out all of 5th Signal's assets, with the command deploying all its tactical satellite gear in the former Yugoslavia.

The tactical gear also could not handle the bandwidth requirements of an Army that demands high-speed multimedia connectivity in the field. So the 5th Signal turned to Sprint, which provides dual redundant 64 kilobits/sec satellite service to the base and five other base camps, with a seventh base hooked into the system by a microwave link.

Sprint provides more than large pipes, said Mike Munson, the company's project manager here. Sprint acts as both a local and a long-distance phone company, he said, providing more than 800 commercial phones and up to a maximum of 30 phones at the outlying camps.

Sprint also serves as the Internet service provider, Munson said. It has installed and maintains six powerful Hewlett-Packard Co. dual Pentium e-mail servers in Bosnia and another two similarly configured servers just across the border at a support camp in Slavonski Brod, Croatia. The company uses these servers to host and manage more than 1,500 military e-mail addresses, Munson said.

Munson emphasized that the company has spread its fiber-optic infrastructure throughout Bosnia, providing voice, but not data service, to Russian, Turkish, Nordic and Polish forces in the Stabilizing Force. Sprint does not provide the satellite circuits and instead aims its dishes at an International Telecommunications Satellite Organization satellite transponder shared by 5th Signal and the Defense Information Systems Agency.

Because Sprint serves only half of the 14 base camps in Bosnia, the 141st Signal Battalion, part of the 1st Armored Division, uses its tactical Mobile Subscriber Equipment gear and tactical satellites from the 22nd Signal Battalion to communicate with those camps, according to Lt. Col. Dan Gerstein, commander of the 141st. Although Gerstein said he is "more pleased than less pleased'' with the Sprint service, he believes the company has problems "in keeping up with our needs. It's also a very expensive contract.''

Sprint declined to provide cost figures, but knowledgeable sources here peg costs to date at roughly $2 million per camp, or $14 million overall for Bosnia, with another $3 million-plus for the commercial service Sprint provides to the U.S. logistics base in Tazar, Hungary.

Air Force users here find themselves frustrated by the Sprint pact, according to Tech. Sgt. Jeff Cantrell, local-area network manager for the operations squadron of the 401st Expeditionary Air Base Group.

"We have to go through the Army to even get to Sprint,'' Cantrell said, which makes it difficult to get service or resolve problems. The Air Force also feels limited in its access to the network, Cantrell added. "If we want to add an [Internet Protocol] address, we have to give up a phone line,'' he said.

Dave Davis, Sprint Government's senior manager for European operations, said he is aware of user frustrations and concerns. But, he said, "no one had ever done anything like this before. There were a lot of unknowns.''

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