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Troops around Iraq will be able to keep in better touch with loved ones soon thanks to 177 new Internet cafes, some of which will feature digital video cameras and telephones for personal calls.

The Morale, Welfare and Recreation program is bringing 145 cyber cafes, many in mobile tents, to areas with high troop density. The other 32 cafes will be set up in community centers at more permanent camps, said Army Maj. Jonathan Sirmon, deputy MWR programs officer for Coalition Joint Task Force-7 in Baghdad.

Sirmon said he couldn’t discuss specifics of the distribution plan for security reasons, but “it covers a very large population out there.”

Most of the 130,000 troops in Iraq “should be within a reasonable time or distance to get to one,” he said in a phone interview from Camp Victory.

Troops don’t have to pay for Internet use at the cafes, which will have about 20 computers each, more than 3,500 total.

The 32 community center sites will have Dell personal computers with CyberCams and microphones, from which troops can provide streaming videos of themselves.

“It’s pretty much like a private video teleconference,” Sirmon said.

The other 145 cafes will have Gateway laptops and eight voice-over-Internet phones for personal use. Using an access code, troops and their loved ones will be able to purchase phone minutes online at www.oif-mwr.net starting in about two weeks.

The calls will cost less than 5 cents a minute to the United States and Germany, said Jim Condon, senior manager for Space and Naval Warfare Systems Center Europe, on a visit to Naples, Italy. SPAWAR, a Department of Defense Engineering, Acquisitions and Program Management Command based in Stuttgart, Germany, was tasked in August to design, install and manage the MWR program.

SPAWAR managed a similar program in the Balkans the past few years.

“The troops like to chat with family members using Yahoo! chat, and the WebCam is a popular feature,” said Condon, who said troops in the Balkans use Internet access for anything from banking to distance education.

The cafes in Iraq will operate around the clock and are open to anyone with access to the bases, Sirmon said. Base mayors and commanders will control the facilities and determine time limits.

The equipment is arriving in Iraq, and the first cafes will be set up in the next two weeks, Sirmon said. He estimated that all the cafes will be operational by January. Condon said he hoped the cafes were running by the end of November.

“It’s difficult to move in the theater, we have to get them out as far as possible as we can … a lot depends on how fast the equipment comes in,” Sirmon said.

Sirmon estimated the cost to be about $20 million in mission-essential appropriated funds.

It’s money well spent to improve troop morale, said Ann Bergstrom, contingency operations manager for G-1, the U.S. Army Europe division based in Heidelberg, Germany, that takes care of personnel issues such as MWR for deployed servicemembers.

“In most of the countries we’re in, the infrastructure within the country doesn’t support the same kind of services soldiers are used to,” Bergstrom said. “It took us quite awhile to find a provider able to operate under those conditions. SPAWAR provides this kind of service at ships at sea, kind of similar to base camps. It was definitely something soldiers asked for and wanted.”

She said she hopes the cafes are all up and running by the holidays.

While many troops have access to AT&T phones, it can be difficult to reach someone on the other end.

“The nice thing about e-mailing is families can communicate back and forth when they both have the time,” she said.

SPAWAR will have a permanent help desk at Camp Victory to support the cafes’ operations.

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