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March 20, 2006

How DO Soldiers Really Call Home?

According to a recent commenter on my post about AT&T ripping off American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan by charging them $.21/minute to call home from AT&T payphones in PXes, many soldiers actually have several much less expensive options available to them for calling home.  Below is the comment in its entirety but with the caveat that I have not independently verified that the poster is a soldier in Iraq NOR the information he presents.  What he says sounds credible but I do not KNOW that its true. I welcome comments from others with direct experience either to support, refute, or supplement this.

I am in Iraq. Right Now.

My options to call home are:
#1 - AT&T Phones: Sometimes laggy, sometimes poor connection, expensive. Also the phone trailer smells terrible inside.
#2 – MWR [nb. Morale, Welfare, and Recreation] VOIP Phones (Available in most posts): $0.01/minute, small lag, connection quality is pretty darn good.
#3 - Government DSN phones: $0.00/min, no lag, very good connection quality. Requires you to call a military operator nearby your intended phone number, and have them forward it, also requires that your DSN phone work to call out. You can also call 800#'s to use a regular phone card using non-surcharged "US->US" calling rates.
#4 - Iraqi Cell Phones: Yes, they exist. I do not know the pricing for them, and coverage varies based on what towers the terrorists are destroying at the time, but pretty good coverage on-post.
#5 - Webcams/Internet voice chat: $0.00 - Available at most MWRs on most posts.
#6 - Thuraya (Satellite Phones): Very expensive, but coverage is everywhere.

So why does anyone use AT&T? Good question. My only guess is simply that people do it because the phone cards are sent by family and friends, or the soldier doesn't know about the other, much, much cheaper options available to them.

Smaller posts may be more limited in their commercial VOIP phones and internet accessability, however, the DSN option should be available to more soldiers in some form.

I asked my correspondent (who prefers to remain anonymous) how available MWR phones are to troops.  His answer:

On Camp Victory, there are at least three locations with the free MWR internet terminals.  They also have the VOIP phones ($0.01/min) at these locations.  At the MWR closest to the barracks I stay in (which has it's own MWR internet/phone center inside due to the high density of soldiers inside) there is rarely a line to user the internet or VOIP phones.  I have never had a need to visit the ones by the trailers, but I have not heard any complaints regarding wait times by those who do utilize them.

I doubt that these locations and the scope of their services provided are well known to some of the soldiers who are not a permanent resident like myself, as the duty of my unit does not send us outside of the gate.  Maps of military camps are not readily available, for obvious security reasons, so it falls upon the unit commanders to find out about these locations for their soldiers and inform them.

The Victory Base Complex is much more developed than other forward operating bases, which is why I recommend using the government/DSN lines for calls if the MWR option is not viable.

So, assuming this is all good data, at least some soldiers can call home for $.01/minute or less – I would consider anything up to $.03/minute “reasonable”.  I don’t know who the VoIP provider is supporting the MWR service the government provides to the soldiers and, of course, don’t know what the government is being charged for the service. However, assuming the government is providing IP access at the bases in Iraq, any competent VoIP provider could profitably sell this service to the government for one cent a minute or less so no large subsidy needs to be involved.

Soldiers with this option only use the AT&T calling cards because they are “free” – e.g. someone at home was ripped off when they thought they were helping a soldiers and overpaid for the card.  Mary and I almost did this until we looked into the price and compared it to what we know from our professional experience is the COST of calls to the US from Iraq.  In fact, we would happily pay this price to help soldiers call home IF it were remnotely justified by the cost of providing the service.  Our problem is that this seems to be a way to help AT&T profits more than a way to help the soldiers.  AT&T may need help but it is not on our preferred charity list.

I’m looking for more firsthand information on this.  Are there soldiers somewhere in Iraq and Afghanistan who can only call home through the AT&T payphones which allegedly only accept over-priced AT&T calling cards?  If not - if all  soldiers already have a better way to call home - the answer is simple: buy something other than these calling cards for troops.  If so – if there are soldiers in these countries with no other options than using these overpriced cards – then there has to be some government action to make sure that either other options are made available to the troops or the AT&T monopoly of payphones in Iraq and Afghanistan is ended or AT&T is forced to allow access without surcharge to other prepaid card providers through these payphones.  Or all of the above.

If you know something about this, please post a comment (it can be anonymous).  If you don’t but the issue is important to you, stay tuned: I’ll let you know what I find out.

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The NY Times reported recently of An Internet Lifeline for Troops in Iraq and Loved Ones at Home . It's the Wired world gone mad in my view. Honey would you like me to enroll the kids in the summer [Read More]

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