Pentagon hit by 'World Wide Wait'

The Defense Department's exploding use of the Internet has put such a squeeze on network bandwidth that it threatens new strategies to use information technology systems to manage the Pentagon's business and fight wars.

Although the Defense Information Systems Agency has more than doubled capacity on its Non-Classified Internet Protocol Router Network (NIPRNET) during the past year, adding almost 20 terabytes of capacity, DISA still cannot keep up with demand, said Pete Paulson, chief of networks at the agency, which serves as the Pentagon's Internet service provider and phone company.

Although NIPRNET does not handle classified traffic—a secret and secure intranet sends highly classified messages as well as military images—the network carries traffic vital to what top commanders call "network-centric warfare," which relies on IT systems to fight battles and supply U.S. forces around the world.

NIPRNET also hosts the military's thousands of World Wide Web sites, delivering e-mail and personnel data, providing some weather information and offering access to the Defense Travel System.

DISA has increased the long-haul capacity of the domestic NIPRNET during the past two years—from 75 OC-3 (155 megabits/sec) circuits to more than 200 OC-3s. However, to complete the network to the "last mile"—to reach Army, Navy, Marine and Air Force bases worldwide—DISA uses circuits furnished by local phone carriers, called local exchange carriers (LECs).

Yet local phone companies have not been able to provide the bandwidth DISA has requested. "The LECs just can't keep up with the demand, particularly in requests for high bandwidth," said Air Force Lt. Col. Steve Dalrymple, commander of DISA's Defense Information Technology Contracting Organization.

Officials of the long-haul carriers and DISA agreed that DOD faces a tougher last-mile problem than companies grappling with the boom in demand generated by Web applications and electronic commerce. The majority of military bases tend to be located far from major metropolitan areas.

"It's hard enough to get to [remote] Fort Huachuca, Ariz., by car, let alone fiber-optic cable," said Alan Chvotkin, vice president of business management at AT&T Federal, which holds DISA's continental U.S. long-haul network contract and provides the bulk of the circuits for NIPRNET.

Chvotkin said the fiber-optic infrastructure on some bases remains so inadequate to handle the increased demand for what the phone companies call "fat minutes"—data-rich traffic—that upgrades often begin at the most basic level: digging a trench.

But military and industry officials indicated that DOD faces its toughest access problems in the western United States, which is served by U.S. West and Pacific Bell, a subsidiary of SBC Communications, and in the Northeast, which is served by Bell Atlantic. A Bell Atlantic spokesman refused to discuss access problems unless presented with specifics. U.S. West and SBC did not comment on access problems.

To solve its immediate bandwidth problems, DISA plans to pay for the added circuits upfront so that telecommunications companies can take orders to local telephone carriers and encourage them to lay the needed cable or install circuits.

Paulson declined to say how much bandwidth DISA has committed upfront or how much it cost the agency.But paying upfront is "the only way DISA is going to get ahead of the curveball," said Diana Gowen, vice president of MCI Worldcom Government Markets. "Now we can go [to the local carriers] with a real order.... They are not going to do anything without one."

Gowen described industry pricing to DISA as "rock bottom,'' but even at those prices, she warned, DOD's communications costs will continue to rise as it moves more applications to bandwidth-intensive applications.

"You have to pay for fat minutes," Gowen said, adding that "no one will accept flat text file [applications] any more.... Web technology is pervasive."

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