Feds, states consider Army training network

Prompted by a congressional mandate— and generous funding— to pursue distance learning, the National Guard Bureau has established a network to better train its soldiers, and it is close to signing on federal and state agencies.

The 367,000 soldiers who make up the Army National Guard will use the NGB Distributive Training Technology Program to enhance training in such areas as weapons technology, engine maintenance and gunnery.

The network uses Asynchronous Transfer Mode technology, making it the government's first federal ATM network covering the continental United States and overseas territories. The Guard is establishing, equipping and connecting the classrooms necessary for the program.

Even before building classrooms, the Army has invested nearly $100 million in the program. "[It is] the only way to keep readiness up and deliver training to soldiers" in these times of declining military budgets, said the product manager for the project, Army National Guard Lt. Col. Philip Vermeer, who is stationed at the National Guard Readiness Center in Arlington, Va.

The big attraction of ATM-to-the-desktop is that quality of service can be guaranteed, Vermeer said. The Guard also is trying to put its traffic on legacy networks onto the new backbone. The architecture also allows for Ethernet to run on top of ATM, with Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol to manage data.

The Guard is talking with federal and state agencies to buy bandwidth based on the amount it uses, Vermeer said, because the Guard has enough funding to set up the technology but not enough to pay site administrators to run the classrooms. "Site administrators will be paid by fee-for-service," he said.

Among the organizations expressing interest in the network are the Navy's Smart Ship program, which uses high-speed networks and PC applications to steer ships and carry out other critical operations in an effort to reduce crew size, and the Aegis Training Center, which trains sailors to operate the Aegis ship-borne radar system. The Federal Emergency Management Agency also is interested in the network. A memorandum of understanding has been signed with the General Services Administration, Vermeer said, which allows GSA to share resources and classrooms. GSA's use of a Lauren, Md., site for telecommuting is another example.

Another likely user is the Army's Distance Learning Program, a 13-year, nearly $1 billion effort encompassing more than 500 courses.

In all, the Guard has discussed the network with more than 200 federal and state agencies. Vermeer said he hopes the network will become similar to an electrical utility, allowing users to "plug in, and we charge per cell." Soldiers also will be able to use the network for personal uses, such as taking college courses, which they will pay for by using a credit card, Vermeer said.

So far, the network backbone is operational in all 50 states and four U.S. territories, according to Gary Yenser, director of National Guard programs for network integrator EDS Corp., Herndon, Va. The next step is to set up the classrooms. Demonstration classrooms have been established in West Virginia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia, as well as a control center in Arlington.

By the end of the year, Vermeer hopes to have 95 to 100 classrooms operational, with possibly more than 900 classrooms in the future, Yenser said. Military courseware for the National Guard will be developed by the Army.

Some training activity is already under way. MountainTop Technologies Inc., Johnstown, Pa., for example, which operates two prototype sites in Pennsylvania, is providing information technology training to military workers displaced from a closed facility in Indiantown Gap, Yenser said. MountainTop draws upon courseware developed by KnowledgeSoft Inc., which that company has made available on the World Wide Web. The Charleston, W.Va., site also has been used to provide engine maintenance training.

The National Guard is evaluating about 2,000 commercial off-the-shelf software products, Vermeer said. The program is looking at COTS packages, for example, for scheduling classrooms and reserving bandwidth. "Everything is based on desktop videoconferencing," with the browser as a graphical user interface model, he said.

The first increment of about 30 classrooms will use Hewlett-Packard Co. 233 MHz Pentium II NT workstations with 64M of RAM, Yenser said. The PCs will be equipped with Zydacron Inc. coder/decoder cards and First Virtual Corp. ATM network interface cards.

Four types of classrooms will be built. At the high end are two-room configurations, with networked PCs connected to the backbone and a room for video teletraining, Vermeer said.

Adams is a free-lance writer based in Alexandria, Va.

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