Dec 31 2009

Node by Node

U.S. and Iraqi technology experts work to rebuild Iraq's IT infrastructure.

After plunging 30,000 feet in a jarring corkscrew dive known as a military landing, Jake MacLeod arrived in Baghdad at 2 a.m. one morning in May 2003. But once on the tarmac, the Bechtel Communications vice president and chief technology officer was not going to complain about the military plane’s evasive actions. “There were still shooters at the ends of the runway,” he recalls.

As he stood there in the darkness, the plane took off within minutes just as abruptly as it had arrived.

Bechtel had recently received a $680 million contract through the U.S. Agency for International Aid, and he was part of a civilian advance team beginning the long process of trying to rebuild Iraq’s infrastructure, including archaic communications networks damaged by two previous wars and years of economic sanctions.

Then, as now, U.S. government officials saw a fiber-optic network backbone for data and voice traffic, wire-line telephone services and a ubiquitous wireless communications network as key elements in the larger efforts to bring order to the country. Congress has OK’d $21 billion since 2003 for infrastructure rebuilding as part of the Iraq Relief and Reconstruction Fund.

The IT infrastructure portion “provides a framework for governance — it is the essential tool for giving the prime minister control over his government,” says Bob Fonow, senior consultant for telecommunications and IT in the State Department’s Iraq Reconstruction Management Office (IRMO) in Baghdad.

“We are now just beginning to fully understand the many ways that IT and telecommunications can enhance the Baghdad security plan.”

The IRMO Office of Communications is working closely with the Ministry of Communications to analyze ways that countries outside the United States use IT for security. An example is the “Ring of Steel” that protects the City of London’s financial district with vehicle controls and CCTV cameras. Another is the vehicle control system for Singapore. “We are also studying the way that China uses Internet filtering systems to understand how jihadist communications might be interdicted more effectively,” Fonow says. “Although many of these technologies were initially developed in the United States, it’s important to recognize that other countries have developed innovative ways to use them for security.”

There is a surprising deficiency in the use of IT to provide security to the civilian population and iconic public facilities in Baghdad, he says. “This is very unfortunate since information and telecommunications is an area that provides the United States with enormous tactical and strategic advantages.”

In the four years since the IT infrastructure rebuilding began, MacLeod and U.S. officials point to technology successes, including 1 million new telephone lines and Internet access for a growing number of Iraqi civilians and officials. But stability remains elusive in a country rocked daily by improvised explosive device (IED) and suicide bomb attacks.

Constant Peril

Bringing essentials such as telephone communications and Internet access to Iraq requires resolve and the ability to cope with physical danger and hardship. Bechtel early this year wrapped up its work on the project, and Fonow is now working with Iraqi companies that have taken over the efforts. But the dangers and the difficulties still lurk.

The memories remain visceral for MacLeod, who recalls sleeping on the floor of Saddam Hussein’s former palace in the Green Zone that first week in Iraq while teams set up trailers for a command center. Running water and electricity weren’t available, and daytime temperatures regularly spiked past 125 degrees.

No power meant computers were useless in the early days when MacLeod tried to assess the toll the fighting had taken on Iraq’s IT infrastructure. Communications were limited to intermittent satellite phone calls as officials figured out how to restore public switched telephone network service to the country. Although MacLeod needed to examine 27 phone branch exchanges throughout the country, he wasn’t allowed to travel anywhere without a military escort of Humvees mounted with .50-caliber machine guns.

Over the three years of Bechtel’s contracts, a total of 52 people associated with the company died in suicide bombings, shootings or IED explosions. Body armor was a must for technicians in the field, who were shadowed by members of a private security company. The security professionals swept work areas for buried explosives and kept trained eyes on the lookout for danger. “Any time they said, ‘We’re going,’ we were gone from the work site,” says Stefhan Sherman, a Bechtel principal engineer, who arrived in Iraq on Sept. 11, 2003, and stayed for three years.

Despite the precautions, danger was never far away because critical infrastructure components such as telephone switching stations are high-impact targets for insurgents.

Once, as Sherman’s group was rebuilding a telephone central office equipped with a satellite transmitter for international calls, a local contract employee removed the false bottom of a work bucket, intent on planting an IED for later detonation. Instead, the device exploded prematurely, killing the would-be saboteur and destroying the transmitter.

By then, sabotage had become a fa­mil­iar part of life for the technicians, Sherman says. “When you’ve got a network with thousands of miles of cable throughout the country, it only takes one shovel or one mortar to cut the link,” he says.

“You just simply can’t safeguard the amount of infrastructure that’s out there on a 24 x 7 basis.” The cat-and-mouse game with the network equipment came to symbolize the emotional ups and downs of working in a hostile environment.

“We’d plow in fiber down to Al Kut [in eastern Iraq], light it up and high five each other,” MacLeod recalls. “And the next day, the fiber would be cut in five places. You’d send people out to splice and reconnect the fiber, and the next day it’s cut again. That was the norm.”

Installation Realities

The harsh conditions also presented logistical challenges. The workers took special care when receiving important technology components as they arrived at a Kuwait staging area. Workers numbered each box before loading them onto trucks that made what Sherman calls a high-speed “bandit run” on the road to Baghdad, where the equipment then moved to vehicles with Iraqi license plates.

“We became very skilled at [tracking equipment] because if you delivered something to Baghdad that needed to be in Karbala, it could put your project back six months” before the error could be corrected, he says.

Despite the setbacks, the communications infrastructure slowly began to take shape across Iraq, as the 27 branch offices and the fiber network came online from Baghdad southeast to Basra and to Mosul to the north. Prior to the Hussein regime’s fall, telephone service availability was among the lowest in the region. U.S. troops had bombed branch offices during the first Gulf War, and subsequent economic sanctions stalled rebuilding efforts in the intervening years.

Today, however, nearly 1 million Iraqi citizens use landline service. In addition, three Iraqi mobile-phone operators provide connectivity to about 9 million mobile subscribers, an effort that started from scratch in 2003. “This has been the fastest growth sector in Iraq since the fall of the regime,” says Abdulilah Dewachi, regional adviser for information and communications technology for the United Nations.

Dewachi worked as an IT technician in Iraq throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. His current work, which now focuses on establishing computer networking training centers throughout the country, continues to bring him to Iraq.

Internet access, which used to be available only to the privileged few, currently reaches about 150,000 subscribers and may one day underpin electronic banking and other modern applications. “Despite the fact that there continues to be serious security problems in Iraq, the number of Internet users has shot up to a relatively high level,” Dewachi says. “It is getting more available for the general population, particularly the young people.”

For many citizens, other concerns had overshadowed the previous lack of modern communications. “The government at the time of Saddam Hussein was very sensitive about communications. It monitored the networks, and everybody was afraid to talk on the phone,” Dewachi recalls.

Uncensored Comm

Today, Iraqi citizens feel free to speak openly in phone conversations, even if they may censor themselves in public for fear of attracting attention from an insurgent group.

“Gone are the days when they were not allowed to say what they feel. They talk against the government; they can talk against the United States; they talk for the United States,” he says. “They express their views quite freely. This is one good thing that has come out of the mess the country is in at the moment.”

Some think the tech advances will continue. IRMO’s Fonow ticks off the reasons why he believes Iraq eventually could achieve one of the most modern technology infrastructures in the Middle East.

“By the end of 2007, the core telecommunications infrastructure will be rebuilt and redundant north to south, east to west,” he says. “There is a significant amount of wireless local loop systems in the country and most of the provinces. A state-run Internet services company provides Internet access. There are also several entrepreneurial Wi-Fi operators around the country. A great deal of effort is going into expanding Internet services in the country now, including some of the first WiMax (wireless interoperability for microwave access) networks being built here.”