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Tuesday, October 24, 2000



By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Bill Thompson, left, chief of education services for the Army in the
Pacific, works with soldiers on computers in the library at Schofield
Barracks. From front to back, they are Sgt. Simon Cobb, Sgt. Megan
Schmitz, Pfc. Shane Hair and Sgt Todd Reddic.

about face!

Wiring shortfalls freeze an
Army plan to get each
recruit online

By Gregg K. Kakesako

THE Army wants to issue every recruit a laptop computer next year, giving them high-speed access to the Internet and streamlining their access to higher education.

But the Army's chief education specialist in the Pacific questions whether the program was fully thought out.

None of the barracks at Schofield Barracks, Fort Shafter or Tripler Army Medical Center has the proper wiring to undertake such an ambitious program, and no one can say how many millions it would cost, or how long it would take, to install computer connections.

Security and other questions remain unanswered as well.

"You are going to be entrusting a pretty expensive piece of equipment to these soldiers," said Bill Thompson, chief of education services for Army in the Pacific.

It was in July that Army Secretary Louis Caldera announced plans to spend $550 million over the next five years to expand existing online educational programs so soldiers can earn technical certifications and college degrees.

Under the Army's University Access Online program, the military will purchase 16,000 to 20,000 laptop computers next year, putting them into the hands of every recruit.

It's part of the Army's solution to recruitment and retention problems, Thompson said.

By Ken Sakamoto, Star-Bulletin
Reference library staffer Bonnie Dong, standing, assists soldiers
training on computers at Schofield Barracks. They are, in front
row from left, Pfc. Shane Hair, Sgt. Megan Schmitz and,
at back right, Sgt. Robert Hogarth.

But none of the Army's housing in Hawaii is equipped to handle the Internet or online educational programs. Soldiers would still have to depend on computers in the Army's Learning Center at Schofield, libraries or recreation centers.

Even Schofield's new 500-unit housing complex for single enlisted soldiers -- the main focus of the recruitment and retention drive, completed last year as part of the Army's $750 million renewal project -- doesn't have the necessary fiber-optic connections.

"The fiber-optic main trunk lines go to these buildings, but not to the individual rooms," Thompson said, noting that fiber-optic networks are expensive to install and maintain. "In these areas we remain woefully understaffed."

Thompson, 60, has run the Army's education program here and in the Pacific for the past 11 years.

Amy Alie, spokeswoman for the 25th Infantry Division, said the Army plans "to look into it" when the online program takes effect in December.

At that time, vendors are expected to deliver a technology package that includes the type of laptops that will be made available and the hardware and software that will be used.

Schofield's information management experts estimate "it would be a matter of months" to wire the new barracks "once the money becomes available," Alie said.

Until then, soldiers wishing to use the Internet from their rooms or their homes in military housing will have to pay out of their own pockets to subscribe to a private Internet service provider using a modem and a phone line.

New quarters not wired

Another 480-unit barracks complex is being built at Schofield and should be open to single soldiers next year, but Alie also acknowledged that it won't be equipped for Internet service. A third 400-unit is planned for 2003, also with no immediate plans for Internet wiring.

The same is true for all of the Army's housing units at Helemano, Aliamanu and other housing installations, Thompson said.

Although some off-base housing units have cable TV, soldiers living there would have to pay to use a cable modem or to access the Army's educational Web site using a telephone modem system, he added.

The bigger problem is the older barracks, or "quads," built before World War II.

Schofield has eight of those historic buildings, which cannot be torn down, but only renovated internally. Of the 37 barracks at Schofield, half were built before 1922.

The challenge is to get all of these older barracks wired, Thompson said.

In the meantime, without computer outlets in their rooms, soldiers have to depend on the 50 computers connected to the Internet through a cable modem located at Schofield's Learning Center, or another 14 wired the same way in the base library.

Hawaii Pacific University and Chaminade University donated a total of $12,000 to have Road Runner cable modems installed for the library's 14 computers. The Army pays the monthly maintenance fees.

Thompson said the Army's Learning Center plans to get more computers, distributing them to at least half the center's 17 classrooms and hooking them up to the Internet.

Part of the kit

Although the specifics of the program haven't been announced, Thompson believes that following graduation from an eight-week basic training course, each recruit will be issued a laptop computer equipped with a CD-ROM and capable of handling digital and video images.

The idea is to make laptops part of a soldier's duffel bag, along with helmet, flak jacket, canteen and entrenching tool.

"They'll sign for it like they do for everything else," Thompson said, "and if they lose it, they will have to replace it."

Last year, 172 online courses were taken by soldiers in Hawaii and the Pacific. This year, 406 online courses are planned. The number of soldiers taking both online and traditional courses has climbed -- to 15,282 so far this year, up from 10,712 in 1999.

Sgt. Simon Cobb, a medic, won't be getting one of the new laptops, but that won't stop him from continuing his education.

Cobb has a personal computer at home and plans to enroll in college classes to get a bachelor's degree before he leaves Hawaii at the end of his three-year assignment.

"When I'm off work, I like to be at home and with my family," said Cobb, 27. "The Army's online program gives me the opportunity to take courses and still be with my family."

Several other soldiers interviewed at Schofield's Yano Education Center like the online program because it frees them to do other things. They also point out that the Army pays 75 percent of all tuition costs.

That amounts to 30 semester hours, Thompson said, if a soldier signs up for the maximum allowed -- $3,500 a year.

Sgt. 1st Class Todd Reddic is five courses shy of getting an associate degree in general science.

"It's a wonderful opportunity for soldiers like myself to work and still have time for our families," said Reddic, who has been in the Army for 15 years.

Sgt. Megan Schmitz, an intelligence analyst, already holds a bachelor's degree in criminal justice.

"I'm thinking about enrolling," she added, "if I can work it into my schedule."

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