A Marine uses a laptop computer to check his Facebook page at Camp Leatherneck in Afghanistan. The personal-use Wi-Fi network at the sprawling U.S. base has to cope with more than 21,000 users. (Lance Cpl. James Frazer / Marine Corps)
As the U.S. military continues to consolidate bases in Afghanistan, the densest personal-use Wi-Fi network in the country — set up and run by DRS Technical Services at Camp Leatherneck in the Washir District — is getting even denser, adding hundreds more users and pushing the limits of wireless communication.
Given this situation, constant vigilance is required to ensure that everyone can connect with loved ones back home, says Jean Chambers, the Marine Corps base’s Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) chief. So the garrison command has to constantly sweep living quarters for unauthorized devices interfering with the network.
DRS began installing Camp Leatherneck’s 2000 Aruba Networks access points back in 2009. Before then, Internet options were limited. One either had a commercial service installed in one’s quarters for a hefty $90-plus a month, or one fought the crowds at the USO and MWR facilities for a free computer — only to lose privacy.
“The USO and the MWR facilities have very good computers and fast Internet,” Chambers explains, “but you’re always there with 50 friends, even if you are trying to have a serious discussion with your wife via Skype or watching the birth of your child.”
But thanks to DRS and Aruba Networks, Camp Leatherneck troops, Defense Department personnel and contractors can now use the campwide wireless network to Skype, email and download content in the privacy of their own rooms.
Still, there are challenges with such a system. Besides having to negotiate all the concrete, rebar and sheet metal on base, the network, which was designed to serve 6,000 concurrent users, is now expected to handle 21,000 — and more users keep joining. Indeed, as late as August, the on-site DRS team was doing installations for 500 additional troops.
“This thing has gone through a couple of iterations of growth,” says DRS Technical Services program manager Ed Drose. “This is the largest rollout and most dense implementation the Aruba mesh network has seen. I don’t think anyone has anything close to this, especially on a tactical environment.”
Camp Leatherneck is a huge American base that serves as the NATO headquarters for southwestern Afghanistan. To appreciate the density of the Camp Leatherneck network consider the fact that a normal household network generally supports three wireless devices over 900 square feet. The DRS system, by contrast, supports 18 devices in that same area, says Frank Hardy, a DRS field service representative at Camp Leatherneck.
“So you have a lot of RF signal in a confined space, and then for all those devices to be able to connect clearly, you have to add more wireless access points,” Hardy says.
To maintain this delicate balance, the power on the access points has to be kept low and interfering signals must be identified and silenced. The garrison command will, accordingly, hunt down wireless printers, PlayStations, rogue routers and other devices that are broadcasting from the living quarters of personnel.
“We come by and let people know about the garrison policy and give them the opportunity to turn off their devices,” Chambers says. “And when they do, the DRS signal clears right up.”
With the impending drawdown in Afghanistan, the future of the super-dense wireless network at Camp Leatherneck is uncertain. The DRS contract runs out in March, and only then will a decision be made to extend services for another six-month period. In the meantime, continued base consolidation will likely force more Wi-Fi adjustments.