News: Home for the holidays -- kind of
Story by Senior Airman Jackie Sanders
KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan - People from across the world gather every year to celebrate the holidays with their families, but being home for the holidays isn’t always an option for some. With the Morale Net, Airmen at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan, can do the next best thing -- communicate with their families through video, voice or text.
Since the Internet’s birth, it has grown to encompass many elements of daily life. One element is communication. To enable open forums of communication between Airmen and families, members of the 451st Expeditionary Communications Squadron maintain a morale networking system called the Morale Net. The Morale Net provides all KAF airmen and contractors directly supporting the 451st Air Expeditionary Wing mission with free internet access.
“I love the Morale Net and how it allows me to keep in touch with my family back home,” said Tech. Sgt. Corina Schrank, 451st Air Expeditionary Wing bioenvironmental technician. “I have four children and a husband at home, so being able to video chat with them not only makes it easier for me to be here, it makes it easier on my family for me to be gone. At least they know I’m safe. They know I’m always thinking of them even when I’m not home. Without being able to be in contact with the people I love the most in this world, I wouldn’t be able to do the job I love the most in this world. So, for that I’m truly grateful.”
The Morale Net provides peace of mind to airmen and their families, which allows them to keep their focus on completing the mission. The system allows for large scale Internet access across multiple areas of the base.
“The Morale Net is a very large system,” said Senior Airman Trevor Pype, 451st ECS, cyber transport technician. “It’s a 150 megabyte-per-second bandwidth system that serves 15 access points on KAF going out to a maximum of the currently registered 8,000 devices.”
The Morale Net works by using a priority set up. The set up determines which users receive amounts of bandwidth, the smallest range of frequencies constituting a band, within which a particular signal can be transmitted without distortion. The bandwidth determines which programs on the computer will be able to access the internet and how quickly they can send or receive information.
“The system has a priority set up,” said Pype who’s deployed from RAF Mildenhal, England . “Certain things such as (video chat and social media) are extremely high priority because that’s how people are able to contact their families. Other things such as stores and (video viewers) are lower priority and certain things are outright blocked.”
Pype said the priority set up allows the system to ensure the primary function of the Morale Net --keeping open channels of communication for airmen and their families. Without the Morale Net, that would be very difficult to do during the holidays.
Those open channels of communication are important to airmen, and when the system goes down the ECS team knows.
“We understand when people are upset if it’s down,” Pype said. “Because, the principle behind the Morale Net is so people can contact their families. We understand that. If somebody is in the middle of an important phone call with their loved ones and it goes down, that could have just separated their link between them. People get frustrated with it.”
Pype said the large linking chain that keeps the Morale Net functioning requires constant maintenance and monitoring for it to work properly, and when it does go down the ECS airmen work hard to ensure it’s restored as soon as possible.
“When it does go down for individual areas, it could be any part of that chain,” Pype said. “It could be that the individual access point has died, it could be a mouse chewed through one of the various wires from here to the camps. From Camp Davis to Camp Bradley Smith there could be five, six different fiber optic links. When a mouse chews through one of those we’d have to find exactly where the link broke. It’s frustrating.
“It’s difficult to say how I feel about it,” Pype said. “On one hand it can be stressful (working on the Morale Net) because of how many things can go wrong and do go wrong, how much maintenance is required to keep it going. But, it also kind of feels good because we’re providing people the morale they really need.”
Morale is an important factor in mission accomplishment and the airmen at KAF understand that from the top down, Pype said.
“The Moral Net being provided to our airmen highlights the credibility of our Air Force Leaders in recognizing the value of staying connecting with family and putting our money behind it,” said Chief Master Sgt. Terence Greene, 451st Air Expeditionary Wing command chief. “It is a part of Comprehensive Airman Fitness. We have Airmen who say ‘goodnight’ to their kids each night as they are tucked in at home; ‘farewell’ as they leave for school or work, and this gives our warriors the peace of mind needed to execute air power. This is a far cry from my first deployment in 1990 where all we had was the two-week old US Mail, a 15-minute morale call each week, and if we were lucky, an occasional (Video Home System) tape shipped over by the unit.”
Pype said another question people ask about the Morale Net is in or regarding to speed.
“Most local connections that people get are anywhere between two-and-five megabyte connections,” Pype said. “My personal Internet at home is 2.5 megabytes whereas this is 150. The actual speed is quite a bit larger than my home Internet, but it’s also serving a lot more people. A typical household user has one router, which is a router, switch and access point all combined into one, whereas we have one router with 75 or so switches and hundreds of access points. It’s quite a large area that it encompasses.”
Keeping the system functioning takes a lot of work. Pype says he knows their work doesn’t go unnoticed. It’s something taken seriously throughout his chain of command.
“Morale Net is our highest priority, non-mission-essential system,” said Lt. Col. Eric Welcome, 451st ECS commander. “The 451st ECS team works hard to maintain and upkeep the Morale Net because they know it’s a vital communication tool for Airmen to keep in touch with their families; which greatly assists in maintaining focus on completing the mission.”
Mission focus is a priority commanders have spoken to at KAF at several functions. The Morale Net helps ensure KAF airmen keep their laser focus in a way, Welcome said.
With a grateful community of airmen, the work of the ECS team and the Morale Net will continue to keep families connected in one form or another during a deployed holiday season.