Semper Wi-Fi

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Marines tired of waiting to use their Afghan camp's Internet facilities have put together their own connection.

The Marines and Navy medical staff of the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, based in Camp Salerno, Afghanistan, built a private, wireless, satellite-based network to support personal e-mail service and Internet-based phone calls to family and friends back home.

Navy Lt. Philip Geiger, the battalion's medical officer, spearheaded the Internet project. He said he and his colleagues decided to build their own Internet connection because of the long lines to use the morale and welfare Internet that Army officials have installed at Camp Salerno, located 90 miles south of Kabul near the border with Pakistan.

Although Army officials went to great lengths to install an Internet for troops stationed at Camp Salerno, the setup "has many, many users and not enough bandwidth," which frustrated members of the Marine unit, Geiger said.

Out of this frustration grew the battalion's own private Internet link, dubbed "Semper Wi-FI." It was developed with the help of funds raised by a U.S. Web site operator and equipment donations from individuals and vendors. The network started running Sept. 4.

Geiger, who volunteered for his tour with the Marine infantry unit, said the battalion's setup works through a satellite operated by New Skies Satellites N.V., based in the Hague, Netherlands. The Bentley Telecom division of Bentley Walker Ltd. based in Hayling Island, England, serves as the ISP for the Semper Wi-Fi network. The battalion pays $715 a month for a service that provide speeds of between 256K and 1024K, Geiger said.

The network gets the signal from the New Skies NSS6 satellite using a dish cobbled together from a reflector made by Channel Master division of Andrew Corp. in Orland Park, Ill., with a receiver/modem from ViaSat Inc. in Carlsbad, Calif.

The Internet signal from the satellite dish feeds into a 3Com Corp. 802.11g Wi-Fi access point that has a range of about 150 feet. Geiger added he intends to install in the next week two more D-Link Corp. 802.11g access points, which have external antennas. With that equipment, he does not anticipate any problems covering the battalion's main camp, which measures 500 feet by 1,000 feet.

Tropos Networks officials in San Mateo, Calif., have donated gear to the battalion's network, including the company's series 5110 mesh access points, which Tropos spokesman Brad Day said have a range of about 1,200 feet. The Tropos gear's mesh network configuration will help extend coverage to Marines operating at some distance from the main camp, Geiger said.

Almost 30 Marines and sailors have already hooked up their personnel laptops to the Semper Wi-Fi network, Geiger said. They also share their computers with battalion members who do not have their own laptops, he added.

The battalion has also hooked up four $10 phones into the network through a voice-over-IP gateway from Net2Phone Inc. Geiger plans to add another three phones to the network eventually.

Geiger raved about the savings of voice-over-IP calls via satellite phones. Some installations in Afghanistan provide personal calls using the service of Iridium Satellite LLC, based in Bethesda, Md. But those calls cost about $1 per minute. "That's just nuts," Geiger said, adding that a command could set up a similar voice-over-IP satellite network with a half dozen phones for about the same price per month.

Geiger, who has completed enough computer science courses to qualify as a true geek, said he believes satellite voice over IP is the future technology to support deployed units because "it is much more flexible than plain old telephone service."

Craig Stedman, an analyst with the Farpoint Group in Ashland, Mass., agreed. "That's the whole point of wireless, instant Internet, anywhere you want it."

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