By John J. Kruzel
American Forces Press Service
Aug. 14, 2009 - Google is tinkering with a new service that could transform the way troops on the frontlines communicate with their families on the homefront. Google Voice assigns users a single U.S. phone number that can ring at phones in multiple locations like the home, office or on a cellular device -- all at the same time. Coupled with a feature that stores and transcribes voicemail in e-mail form, Google Voice can relieve some of the technical hassles that come with staying connected.
"Google Voice can help keep people connected, can help servicemembers worry less about missing a call or not getting in touch with people they need to, and focus more on getting the mission done," said Army Sgt. Dale Sweetnam, who the U.S. Army is loaning to Google for a year to help the company coordinate its military outreach efforts.
Sweetnam, who spent 13 months deployed in Iraq with Task Force 49, provides Google a window into servicemembers' experiences downrange where keeping contact with family and friends back home competes with the demands of daily military objectives.
"With the operation tempo of the military and the intense nature of accomplishing a mission, to make communication just one less thing you have to worry about is a great tool," he said in an interview.
As Google puts the final touches on Google Voice, the service is available in limited capacity and only by requesting an invitation from the company. But given its recognition that military deployments are often fraught with communication lags, Google is giving priority invites to active members of the military.
Earlier this month, the company announced that troops with a .mil e-mail address can visit www.google.com/militaryinvite to sign up for a free Google Voice account.
While the service has real-world applicability for many people, Google Voice is an especially useful tool for servicemembers, both deployed and at home.
"It is often hard or near impossible to receive calls when deployed abroad, due to limited access to phones and time zone differences," Sweetnam said in an e-mail. "With Google Voice, you can listen to and read voicemail online, so you can hear messages from family members more often and keep up with what is going on back home."
Having one, unchanging phone number could also be a welcome constant in a military career filled with frequent moves. Keeping a single phone number that travels with servicemembers amid permanent changes of station means no more need for new numbers or missed calls to old numbers along the way.
An additional kicker is that because Google Voice is free, phone calls between friends and family who live overseas or in another state won't cost a small fortune.
"Military servicemembers often don't live in the same states and countries as their friends and family or other buddies they met in the military," Sweetnam said. "Google Voice helps save money by offering free calls in the continental U.S. and low-priced international calls."