Wireless rollout at Iraq base tries muni Wi-Fi model

20,000 at Joint Base Balad could eventually subscribe to the service

US military personnel at Joint Base Balad in Iraq are receiving wireless Internet connections on a subscription basis via a satellite uplink and a ruggedized wireless LAN.

About 1,000 soldiers and airmen have subscribed for US$60 per month to send e-mail and browse the Web. When the network is finished in November, it should reach 20,000 enlisted personnel on one of the largest bases in the region, said Lucas Catranis, president and chief technology officer at Babylon Telecommunications, the integrator on the project.

Babylon has installed about 250 ruggedized Wi-Fi access points from Aruba Networks on the base, Catranis said. "We chose Aruba because of their ability to support higher numbers of clients than other vendors could," he explained. "Balad is like a small city with a lot of security requirements."

The network, which offers 256Kbit/sec. downlink speeds and 128Kbit/sec. uplink speeds, is relatively expensive because of the cost of the satellite uplink, which involves several providers, Catranis said. But soldiers get per diem expenses for all or part of the cost, he added.

All told, the network has cost Babylon about $1 million to install, and the government is not paying for anything, Catranis said. That economic model makes the service similar to what municipal Wi-Fi was supposed to be for US cities, even though that model hasn't panned out because providers couldn't find advertising or revenues to pay for buildouts, Catranis said.

"It makes sense to build such a service here, on a base, with a captive audience in a densely populated area," he noted. Advertising from Babylon isn't added to the content that soldiers receive, "and we have no intention of providing it," he added.

Dave Logan, general manager of federal solutions at Aruba, said the company's gear makes it easier for connections from a variety of client machines. For most part, soldiers and airmen on the base carry their own personal laptops and gaming devices. The connectivity makes it easier to e-mail home or to set up an online game, Logan said.

Mike Ford, head of business development at defense contractor First Kuwaiti General Trading & Contracting, said he spoke to troops at Balad who are "very excited" to have the Wi-Fi system. He said there were initially some problems with reception inside of housing made of shipping containers with thick steel walls that inhibit Wi-Fi transmissions. But the users have been "extremely happy with the quality of reception and strength of signal" since some changes were made to the design, Ford noted.

"It is far better than waiting in line for limited access at an Internet cafe," Ford added. So far, the system allows most Internet functions, but not VoIP applications, which are expected later.

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