- The Washington Times - Monday, February 12, 2007

A New York firm is providing 24-hour Web-based live video and conferencing services free to American troops in Iraq, Afghanistan and anywhere in the world to help them keep in closer touch with their families back home.

The program, known as Video Furlough, was introduced shortly before Christmas by Instantstream Multimedia Communications Inc., a software provider involved in low-cost global interactive communications.

“Enlisted men and women are making a big sacrifice when it comes to their families. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be away for nine months and not be part of my family’s life,” said Michael J. Daly, chief executive officer of Instantstream and a father of two.

He said about 800 Americans, including troops overseas and family members in this country, have signed onto the Video Furlough service.

“Many of the approximately 400 military people who have registered so far say they just want their family members to see them and know they are OK. The program gives them a temporary vacation” from uncertainty about what is going on in each others’ lives, Mr. Daly said.

He said Video Furlough can allow a soldier sitting in his bunk in Baghdad at night to become directly and immediately involved in the life of his family back home in the United States by seeing firsthand his son or daughter’s latest report card or joining in a child’s birthday celebration.

“Up to 60 people can speak in a live video conference, so it’s a real family get-together,” Mr. Daly said.

Rick Cole of Morris County, N.J., a former Marine, found out about Video Furlough through an article in a local newspaper and has been helping spread the word.

“This is technology that’s available now, which would be so beneficial to our men and women away in the military. Once people know about it, they will use it,” said Mr. Cole, 50.

E-mail can be difficult in many parts of the world, and calling home is apt to be harder. Mr. Daly said he had two Marine relatives who served in Iraq during the first Persian Gulf war in 1991, and it cost at least $10 per call to phone home then. He said he also knows of an American stationed in Japan who pays $1,200 monthly to call family members in this country.

“That is absurd for an enlisted person,” he said.

Mr. Daly’s small-but-growing company, founded in 2004, offers global communication over traditional switch-based systems, the Internet and wireless devices. Video Furlough is part of an Instantstream program known as Streamphone, which Mr. Daly says has “been available anywhere in the world for the past two years.

“My regular [Streamphone] customers pay only 1 or 2 cents per minute,” he said.

To participate in Video Furlough, someone only needs an electronic device that can handle streaming video and a headset, such as a laptop or other computer, a BlackBerry or other personal digital assistant, a video camera or a cell phone.

“You must have an Internet connection, broadband or cellular Internet connection,” he explained.

A Pentagon spokesman estimates that the proportion of U.S. troops so equipped, even in combat zones, approximates that of the civilian population.

Most registrants at the company’s Web site (www.instantstream.com) are members of the military, who “must provide their military e-mail address” and a password, Mr. Daly said. After that, service members can use the service at will, “every hour on the hour if they choose.”

As for reimbursement, Mr. Daly said registrants are provided with an account containing $500.

“But if someone runs out of money and sends me an e-mail, I’ll send that person more. You can’t put a price on the efforts of our troops.”

Mr. Daly said he could not estimate exactly how much Video Furlough is costing his firm.

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