Iraq-based Soldier Searches for Wi-Fi Answers

By Ed Sutherland

May 26, 2004

UPDATED: When a U.S. soldier based in Iraq logged into the Internet seeking answers, our own Wi-Fi support forum came alive with 'miraculous' offers of assistance.

When a U.S. soldier based in Iraq logged into the Internet seeking answers, a Wi-Fi support forum came alive with "miraculous" offers of assistance. From Ethernet cables to access points, the Wi-Fi Planet Forum began packing a wireless care package.

In the modern equivalent of writing a letter home from the frontlines, the U.S. soldier located West of Baghdad in April began using the Internet forum to gain help expanding a Wi-Fi network. The network's goal: providing fellow enlisted men and women with e-mail and Internet access. Soon afterwards, another user claiming to be stationed in Iraq also began asking the online community for help.

"Wi-Fi is a great way to keep soldiers informed, in touch with their families and the rest of the world," says Frank Gonzalez, a first sergeant in a cavalry unit near Baghdad.

Gonzalez used the online forum to seek inexpensive equipment. The current setup costs $12,000 and "it still only works half of the time."

"The fact that so many people pulled together in such a short period of time to get these guys every piece of equipment they needed is just short of miraculous," says Mike Houghton, moderator of the forum.

Using the nickname "Wombat" the soldier's message entitled "Need help in Iraq!" started off this way: "I am serving here in Iraq and have a problem with our wireless connection." While 802.11b was installed in the living quarters -- tents, actually -- the wireless signal did not reach to the outer boundary where Wombat lived and "closest to where the mortars land," he wrote.

The single post, resulting in more than 90 offers of assistance, has been read more than 3,000 times.

"This post has gained twice as much attention as any other post in the history of this forum," says Houghton.

Many of those responding to the question of Wi-Fi in Iraq work for Fortress Technologies. Fortress supplies the U.S. Army with hardware and software beefing-up 802.11b security as part of the military's Combat Service Support Automated Information System Interface Project (CAISI).

While the AirFortress Wi-Fi systems were designed to aid military support operations, after the Battalion Commander was set up with one of the wireless e-mail connections Wombat was given the green light to provide the Wi-Fi connection to other soldiers.

"I am just going crazy trying to get these soldiers something set up to e-mail their families," wrote Wombat.

E-mail has become a popular method for soldiers to stay in contact with friends and family back home.

Fortress receives pictures and other feedback about Wi-Fi from soldiers returning from Iraq, says Ken Evans, vice president of marketing for the company.

After learning of security flaws surrounding 802.11, the U.S. Army banned Wi-Fi -- then later allowed wireless devices provided they include added protection.

In 2002, the U.S. Army awarded Fortress a contract providing the military with AirFortress Secure Client software and Wireless Security Gateway hardware. As part of the deal, wireless laptops are provided with Fortress security software -- at $49 a pop.

Evans says military sales of Wi-Fi gadgets are "snowballing" and the 7,000 devices sold under the CAISI contract are only "the tip of the iceberg."

AirFortress gateways and software protects nearly 90,000 users and 11,000 access points.

Data travels through a hub, is encrypted by the Fortress gateway and then is passed onto a standard Cisco access point and router. By using off-the-shelf Wi-Fi components, military wireless networks are secure without the need for more expensive components.

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