December 10, 2003
The Department of Defense has allowed units in Iraq to obtain Internet access, for morale purposes, pretty much any way they can. American and local firms have been eager to supply the need. In Kuwait, local companies simply supply net access. In Iraq, companies that sell portable satellite dishes, and access to their communications satellites, are ready to sell, deliver and install equipment. For example, Hughes Electronics, sells a small (less than four feet across) satellite dish for $1500 (plus a $600 installation fee) that will support 20 PCs (networked together) for a monthly access fee of about $300. This is a high speed connection, and twenty terminals are usually enough to keep a battalion of troops happy. The most common uses are email and VOIP (phone calls made over the Internet). The VOIP software is extra, but the VOIP calls cost pennies a minute. The high speed connection also allows for video conferencing with folks back home. Bases stateside have teleconferencing equipped PCs available for families who don't have them at home. So many troops are in daily email and VOIP contact with their friends and families, and several times a month can see them as well via a teleconference.
Every battalion or ship in the United States armed forces as a morale, welfare and recreation (MWR) fund. Some of the money is from the government, but the troops, and civilians, can contribute as well. The MWR usually goes for battalion parties, sports equipment and "morale and welfare" events. But in this case, lots of it is going into building these "Internet Cafes." The price is right, and many of the units will take the equipment back to their U.S. bases with them and use it at home as well. Troops often have their own Internet accounts in their barracks, but the Internet Caf setup provides opportunities for high speed access, group games and training. The army and marines have been developing many multiplayer training games, that look like commercial games, but are done to exacting military standards (no endless ammo supply in your rifle or grenades that blow up houses.) This is one of those rare situations where the troops were enthusiastic about spending MWR money on equipment that could be used on training.
These MWR funded Internet Cafes have changed the media landscape considerably as well. Not only can reporters quickly get a lot of first hand information from the troops via email, but the news quickly flows both ways. In past wars, false rumors of "what was really happening at the front" could spiral out of control and cause morale problems at home. No longer. If mom and dad, or old school buddies, see something odd in the news about Iraq, an email can get the straight story. This sort of thing is keeping reporters on their toes, but is driving military security officers nuts. Troops are constantly reminded not to mention anything that would compromise security (upcoming or on-going operations, locations of troops in the field and status of men and equipment, and so on), and the Department of Defense is experimenting with special software that monitors outgoing email for possible sensitive information. So far, there have not been any major problems, but the potential is there. No general is thinking of shutting down the MWR Internet Cafes, the damage to morale would be too great. But, as with any new technology, there's a downside you have to watch out for.