August 19, 2004

Linux to help Marines become Semper Wi-Fi

Author: Joe Barr

One of the benefits of attending conferences like Blackhat Briefings and Defcon is the networking that occurs in the background. In this case,
wireless networking. I met John Hering when he and his posse were in the press room giving a demo of their Bluetooth Sniper Gun ahead of their presentation. That's when I heard John mention the "UnwireIraq" project, which aims to provide American servicemen and women in Afghanistan and Iraq with high-speed Internet access, so that they can stay more closely in touch with friends and families back home. He gave me a brief overview of the project that day. I told him I would like to follow-up with him after the conference. Now that I've done so, here's what I've learned.

The story actually begins with LT. Phillip Geiger, Medical Officer with the 3rd Battalion, 6th Marines. Geiger's unit was sent to Afghanistan in May of this year, and has recently moved to Iraq. Naturally, one of the things they miss most is
regular realtime contact with their friends and families back home.

Geiger wrote that the "morale network" provided by the military just didn't
meet their needs as well as it might. He said:

At most locations there is one or a few government-owned "morale" computers
that can be used by anyone for email and recreational Web browsing (albeit
at extremely slow speeds -- less than .5-1Kbps during peak hours). The
lines are invariably long (45+ minute waits for 15-30 minute blocks of
time). The same goes for phones -- the waits are long and the time limits
are relatively short.

An additional (and huge) problem with the government network is that
connecting personally owned computers is prohibited. This is partly
a security issue (they don't have a way to ensure that everyones laptop
has the current security patches) and partly a performance issue (the
network is already slow enough, and would likely become completely unusable
if everyone plugged in).

So the network/phone problem came down to:

  • long lines with short time limits for actual use
  • slow network (too many users, not enough bandwidth)
  • can't connect personal laptops

Geiger and others came up with solution to the problems mentioned with the "morale network." They would simply do it themselves, providing their own bandwidth and networking equipment, Geiger said.

Our general plan is:

  • a bidirectional dish for satellite Internet service
  • 802.11 access points to provide coverage over our compound
  • Internet Protocol phones
  • Linux and Squid

Once the plan was done, all that was needed was the money for the bandwidth and the equipment. That's where Ernie's House of Whoop Ass comes into the story.

Ernie organized a fund-raiser over the 4th of July and more than $8,000 was raised. Geiger said, "This allowed us to buy the satellite dish, receiver hardware, pay for 3 months of 1024 down / 256 up service, and buy a few wireless access points and network cards."

That's also about the time that John Hering started getting involved. John told me:

I was browsing the Internet really late at night, going through some Wi-Fi message boards, actually, and I came across a soldier by the name of Phil Geiger in Afghanistan, who basically was looking for some advice from Wi-Fi guys on what kind of kind of equipment the guys in Afghanistan could use to try and connect to the Internet. They were trying to figure out a way that would, hopefully, allow them to be able to talk to their loved ones.

One thing led to another and Hering's DailyWireless site set up a new called UnwireIraq to raise additional funding and hardware.

Geiger noted Hering's support, saying that "Through his efforts, Tropos Networks has offered to donate some
of their high-end 5110 outdoor access points."

The Tropos donations should put the 3/6 Marines over the top, and it's expected they will have a live network operation going on in the near future. If you, too, would like to help the 3/6 Marines stay "Semper Wi-Fi" -- and help other units get that way -- visit The UnwireIraq site to arrange your donation of hardware or cash.

Click Here!