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Alpena Regional Fiber Consortium, A Model for Geographic Networking

In early 2005, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary (NOAA) in Alpena received a grant to connect its new facility, the Great Lakes Maritime Heritage Center, to Internet2 and provide educational programs across the network.

Alpena Community College (ACC) was very interested in providing the marine sanctuary’s new programs to its students, but acquiring the needed bandwidth in Alpena for the project at a reasonable cost proved difficult.
Alpena Regional Fiber Consortium
Frustrated with the situation, Vicky Kropp and Mark Grunder, co-directors of information systems for Alpena Community College, decided to arrange a meeting with other organizations in Alpena to find a solution. They invited representatives from Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary/NOAA, the City of Alpena, Alpena County, Alpena County Library, Alpena Public Schools, Alpena Regional Medical Center, Northeast Michigan Community Mental Health, Northland Library Cooperative, and Merit Network to discuss ways to bring more bandwidth to the area. The meeting was very productive. Several public entities identified their fiber optic network resources, many of which took the same path in the city. The meeting created a new dialogue among the organizations and began the process of forming the consortium.

“I think the promise of a networked community, collaboration and shared resources was compelling,” Vicky Kropp said, “but dollars played a significant role in participation and this is where Merit, Alpena College, and the City began the negotiations to create a most important benefit to the consortium.”

Forming the Consortium

After the initial meeting, ACC worked with local partners and Merit to find a solution. It was decided that sharing public resources with public agencies would create a network that would serve the best interests of the community.

To assist in the creation of the project and help fund the consortium, the City applied for the State of Michigan’s Centers for Regional Excellence (CRE) program and was awarded $25,000 to help get the project started. The initiative would create a regional network in Alpena by using existing fiber that was owned by the organizations and then build new fiber connections to link the organizations to the existing fiber.

Meanwhile, Merit worked to provide a dedicated connection with Internet2 access to Thunder Bay Marine Sanctuary.

On September 6, 2006, the organizations met again and officially formed the Alpena Regional Fiber Consortium (ARFC). Representatives from Alpena Community College, Alpena County, Alpena Public Schools, Alpena Regional Medical Center, the City of Alpena, Northeast Michigan Community Mental Health, Northeast Michigan Consortium, and Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary/NOAA were named to the consortium’s board of directors.

Creating the ARFC network was the next step. The organization used funds from the CRE grant and from its members to invest $75,000 in the project, which was a significantly reduced cost for creating a network since it was done in conjunction with other projects. The network projects were completed in conjunction with other projects that had a total cost of $250,000.

Over the past two years, the consortium has grown as more organizations in the area have seen the value of the partnership and its network. The consortium has established connections in over 40 separate locations covering approximately 100 plus miles of fiber optic cabling. Allband Communications Cooperative, Alpena Cancer Center, Alpena Oxygen, Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency, Inc. (NEMSCA), Northland Library Cooperative, Spring Arbor University North Region, and the State of Michigan have joined Alpena Regional Fiber Consortium, bringing the total to 15 consortium members.

When a new organization wishes to join the ARFC, the board of directors first needs to give its approval. The new member’s network then must be connected to the the ARFC network by building a new connection to the closest fiber connection or the nearest switch.

Each fiber consortium member owns its organization’s fiber network connections and is allowed to pass its traffic anywhere on the ARFC network. Consortium members receive a minimum of a 1 gigabit connection for local traffic. For external bandwidth, each consortium member is responsible for acquiring the needed bandwidth from a network provider.

A Better Connected Alpena at Lower Cost

The benefits of the consortium have been improved services and lower costs. For example, NEMSCA’s annual telecommunications budget was reduced by $7,000 annually.

“In the future when the demand for bandwidth increases, the cost would be far to great for any organization to create this size network alone,” said Chad Repke, management information systems director for the City of Alpena. “Without the consortium the future for organizations in the community would be more difficult and expensive, a fate which the surrounding communities are beginning to realize.”

“It has afforded us the ability to overcome the challenges of distance in providing something back to our community,” according to Kropp. “Also important has been the building of not only a technical but social group or community that will continue to foster ideas for development and growth to support long-term advantages for our community.”

“The fiber consortium has reduced the cost of our Merit Internet connection,” said Dick Wiitialia, MIS director for Northeast Michigan Community Mental Health. “It has also given us the bandwidth for excellent video conferences as well as a better medium to VPN tunnel through to our Affiliation servers in Petoskey. All of these allow NEMCMH to provide better services and save tax payers’ dollars.”

The hardwork of the Alpena Regional Fiber Consortium was recognized by Governor Jennifer Granholm at the Collaboration2 Regional Teleconference in July 2007. The organization also earned a Community Excellence Award from the Michigan Municipal League in late 2007.

“Before the consortium, none of the members knew each other,” Repke said. “Now members meet regularly and talk about their organizations and how to make Alpena a better place.”

Current & Future Projects

The ARFC is currently assisting the Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary in exploring options for network connectivity to the islands and surrounding waters of the sanctuary. This project will assist NOAA in bringing the underwater treasures of Northeast Michigan to the world and allow for further educational and research opportunities.

Also, the State of Michigan is in discussions to connect local state offices to the fiber consortium and model the consortium’s accomplishments for future state-wide projects. Chad Repke believes that the State of Michigan could save a significant amount of money by implementing a fiber consortium strategy in other communities around the state.

“If the entire state could do this, the state could save a lot of money,” Repke said.

The only drawback that has been found so far for the consortium has been a lack of private sector involvement or economic development. Usage restrictions on the members’ fiber connections have created unexpected issues as the consortium has sought to expand and possibly include for-profit businesses. Repke noted that it’s difficult to change the setup of a network consortium retroactively once the pieces are in place, but he is hopeful that the ARFC network can assist economic development in the area at some point.

“The immediate goals of the consortium are to expand within our community to providing services that will support and create more opportunities for community growth,” Kropp said. “(Other) opportunities could be realized through alignment with other groups, organizations, and consortiums to provide a connection of services throughout Michigan.”

“Expanding or replicating the model is the greatest opportunity to use existing infrastructure for the good of all,” Repke believes. “This would be the biggest benefit to the Alpena consortium and to the greater good of having real next generation network access available to as many people as possible.”

The success of the consortium has inspired other communities in Michigan, including Hillsdale and Escanaba, to begin forming regional fiber network consortiums. The Alpena Regional Fiber Consortium has not only improved connectivity in Alpena and provided financial savings to its members, it has brought the community closer together and created new successful relationships between organizations.

Future goals for the consortium include attracting more Alpena-area organizations and possibly connecting nearby communities to the ARFC network.