Online Mail Call

Satellite-based comms ? already key to tactical apps boost soldiers' morale

Americans associate mail call with the black-and-white photos from World War II of soldiers sitting on a misty hill smoking cigarettes and reading letters from loved ones.

But those perceptions could change when they see the digital color photos coming from Iraq of troops assembling in air-conditioned tents typing e-mail messages on computers connected to the Internet and talking on voice-over-IP telephones.

"They really show the evolution of technology," said Steve Groves, an Army research and development scientist who helped establish the military's Internet cafés in Iraq.

Army officials built 145 cafés across Iraq so that off-duty troops could e-mail family and friends. Each café — officially called a morale, welfare and recreational site — consists of 20 notebook computers and eight voice-over-IP telephones.

Troops said they enjoy using the laptop computers to surf the Internet. But they — and their spouses — especially like the 5-cents-a-minute cost to make telephone calls.

"Just recently, the satellite phones were put in the base where my husband is in Iraq," the wife of a U.S. warfighter wrote to Segovia Inc., which provides the service. "We have been paying about $140 a week on his phone calls home. Imagine how surprised and happy I was to discover the very reasonable rates provided by your company. Twenty-five dollars goes a long way — 500 minutes of time. It is a great service you are doing for the soldiers deployed in Iraq."

Segovia, based in Herndon, Va., has received more than 100 thank-you letters similar to that one, according to Kirby Farrell, the company's executive vice president for sales and marketing.

IP satellite services use the Internet's packet-switched connections to exchange voice, video and data information, avoiding the tolls of the public telephone

network.

Last year, Segovia received a two-year, $27 million contract to design and build the military's Internet cafés. The company equipped the sites with Gateway Inc. laptop computers and Cisco Systems Inc. voice-over-IP phones.

Segovia officials won the job by successfully using their global, IP-based satellite communications network to securely deliver battlefield photos to Army space support teams during last year's invasion of Iraq.

It once took Army officials 72 hours to deliver images to the six-person groups who advise commanders on space operations. The company's broadband satellite system cut that to two hours, Farrell said.

"IP-based satellite systems are new to communications," said Groves, who also serves as director for military space

and concepts at the Army Space and Missile Defense Battle Lab in Colorado Springs, Colo. "They are unheard of in the military."

Segovia's network gave the Army's space support teams increased bandwidth and reliable communications. It delivered information on satellite communications, space weather, the Global Positioning System, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, enemy missile launches, and friendly and enemy troop positions, Groves said.

The company's network works like this: Segovia officials install switches and routers at sites worldwide owned by satellite and telecommunications companies, and then they contract with those companies to use their communications services. Next, they combine the hardware and software at those sites to create a global, IP-based network that is monitored at Segovia's network center in Herndon, Farrell said.

"We established a clear leadership position due to our ability to provide coverage for the way government and military communicate today [using] IP broadband services anywhere," said Mike Wheeler, Segovia's president and chief executive officer. "We have the ability to reach the far corners of the earth and mobile environments."

The work done for the Army space support teams and on the military Internet cafés helped Segovia acquire three more military jobs, according to Farrell.

The company received a contract in March to provide broadband satellite services for the Iraqi reconstruction effort. Segovia provides voice and data communications at 80 sites for the country's 18 ministries, he said.

Company officials then designed the Army's new Combat Service Support-Satellite Communications system, a network devised to correct logistics problems the military experienced during the invasion of and battles in Iraq, Farrell said.

The ruggedized notebook computer and satellite dish — called a very small-aperture terminal — will let military logisticians deployed overseas connect to supply systems in the United States to order and track materiel.

The company also will provide voice over IP in the new mobile communications system for the Third Infantry Division, which will return to Iraq later this year, Farrell said. Army officials learned from the force's experience in liberating Iraq with Marines and British units that they need a system that provides bandwidth for troops who move fast and out of sight of one another and ground-based networks on the battlefield.

Army officials now recognize the warfighting connection that mobile communications gives to soldiers. Service officials also see the emotional tie to loved ones it provides them through the Internet cafés, according to Chaplain Maj. David Brown.

Brown served in Iraq last year when the first morale, welfare and recreational sites were set up. He said soldiers waited in line for hours to get in them. "Anytime they have an opportunity to communicate with loved ones, it has a way of restoring normality in their lives," he said. "It's like turning on a light in a dark room."

He also served during the first Gulf War in 1991, and said that because the computer revolution had just begun then, soldiers relied on letters and occasional telephone calls to talk to loved ones. "Any [form of communication] by themselves is not enough," Brown said, because nothing replaces seeing one another. But the Internet helps overcome the time gap that World War II soldiers experienced between sending and receiving letters.

"The Internet is a lot quicker," Brown said. "It gives soldiers a better opportunity to do what we call relational maintenance — the things needed to keep up their communications on what they hadn't planned."

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