Soldiers find alternatives to DOD’s Internet cafs

Self-run ISPs keep troops in Iraq connected to loved ones back home

Hajji-Net

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When Sgt. Dave Coughanour of the Army’s 1-110th Infantry was deployed to Iraq in July 2005, he and many of his fellow soldiers found that the Defense Department’s Internet cafs could not accommodate everyone’s needs.

“Each unit gets a set number of computers to use per number of troops they have, and that number is never high enough,” Coughanour said during an interview conducted via instant messaging. He described long lines, filtered content and connections so slow that soldiers barely had time to read two or three e-mail messages before their 30-minute sessions ended.

Coughanour decided to take matters into his own hands. Although his main job is to maintain the Secure IP Router and Non-secure IP Router networks for Central Command, he has given himself a second job: running his own satellite-driven Internet service provider.

Coughanour is stationed at Camp Habbaniyah, a former British Royal Air Force base midway between Ramadi and Fallujah. The base’s previous occupants had rigged a satellite dish to provide service for a few dozen soldiers. Coughanour rebuilt the operation on a bigger scale using reconditioned computers the RAF had left behind, the Linux operating system and a service provider in Ukraine. PantherNET, as he dubbed it, supports nearly 350 soldiers in a three-mile area at speeds comparable to ISDN. It has been running since September 2005.

“Sgt. Coughanour has single-handedly brought our soldiers, sailors and marines peace of mind, knowing that when they get back from a long and strenuous mission, their loved ones are only an instant message away,” wrote 1st Lt. Antonia Greene, the camp’s public affairs officer, in an e-mail message. Coughanour has also helped three other on-base companies set up satellite dishes.

His efforts are all the more noteworthy given the unusual environment in which he works. The most basic parts can be difficult to obtain or extraordinarily expensive because of the shipping costs involved. There is no electrical infrastructure, and on-base power relies solely on generators that must be cleaned and refueled on a regular basis.

Locating an ISP on a military base in the middle of a war zone brings other hazards. For instance, a pair of rockets once struck close to the building that houses the ISP and scrambled the firmware on some of the equipment, Coughanour said.

Bandwidth costs are high. It costs nearly $16,000 a month for the 6 megabits/sec connection that the core PantherNET uses. If a soldier wants to join the network, it costs $60 dollars a month plus a $100 setup fee. Coughanour contributes to the monthly fee.

Local Iraqi ISPs offer similar bandwidth options and more stability, and some of them already provide services to some U.S. bases. But Coughanour was concerned about possible security problems. “Having all of our unencrypted traffic going through a local source would be way more of a risk than I would be willing to take,” he said.

With his setup, he can monitor everything going in and out via the ISP’s connection. He also ensures that all computers on the network have antivirus and anti-spyware software with automated update agents running.

Coughanour has to limit voice-over-IP phone services because of the large amount of bandwidth they require. One phone call uses 80 kilobits/sec, which would be difficult to manage for such a large group of soldiers, many of whom would rather talk to their loved ones than send electronic messages. The ISP also blocks other high-bandwidth programs, such as file sharing and online games.

However, the advantages of Coughanour’s self-run ISP were revealed in the course of Federal Computer Week’s interviews for this story. “Without his skills and tireless effort,” Greene wrote, “I wouldn’t be able to e-mail you now.”

Self-run ISPs are a growing trend at U.S. bases in Iraq. At nearby Camp Taqqadum, Sgt. Francis Scardino runs a much smaller service that supports about 20 subscribers on a single dish. His ISP is part of a decentralized network of roughly a half-dozen dishes at the camp, each managed by different soldiers in their spare time. The loosely organized approach means that individual ISPs can offer services that Coughanour’s doesn’t.

“I have 20 subscribers on my civilian Internet and offer streaming media, file sharing, online game servers and a chat server,” Scardino said.

Roughing out the Internet

When Army Sgt. Dave Coughanour decided to provide satellite-driven Internet service to troops in Iraq, he was surprised to discover that items he would have taken for granted stateside were scarce or prohibitively expensive in Iraq.

In a recent blog posting, Coughanour listed items other military personnel should pack before shipping out if they want to provide Internet service overseas.

1. Wire crimp kit to make your own wire, because the material is heavy and expensive to ship.

2. A removable hard drive on which to back up systems.

3. Software and operating systems on CD.

4. Removable floppy, CD/DVD and USB drives for backup booting and to deal with the wide variety of computers that will need to access the network.

5. Jeweler’s screwdrivers for hardware repairs.

6. A spare laptop PC for anyone whose computer stops working so they can keep communicating with people back home.

— Wade-Hahn Chan

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