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Hillsdale Organizations Collaborate with Merit to Produce Local High-Speed Network Ring

Beginning in 1992, to keep cost as low as possible, Hillsdale College would only increase the capacity of its internet connection when demand for bandwidth increased, the most costly component being the data circuit or multiple data circuits required to deliver the needed bandwidth.

When the College required 6 megabits (MB) of bandwidth, Dave Zenz, executive director of Information Technology Services at Hillsdale College, examined the options. For the cost of four 1.5 MB T1 circuits (6MB of capacity), he purchased a 45 MB T3 circuit, resulting in 39 MB of excess capacity. Zenz then began considering ways to “broker off” the excess capacity to others in Hillsdale County, reducing his circuit cost which would free up money to purchase even more bandwidth when needed. Hillsdale College and Hillsdale County ISD discussed the possibility of interconnecting their networks in 2001 and on other occasions, but decided that the cost was too great.
Hillsdale Community Network Project
In 2006, Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD) found that it was in desperate need of increasing its network bandwidth to meet the growing demands of its users. The District had 62 miles of fiber optic cabling strung around the county, but was looking for ways to increase its available bandwidth in Hillsdale without increasing its costs. This time, a partnership between the two organizations and others in the area began to make sense.

During a Merit Joint Technical Staff meeting in 2006, Zenz decided to approach Merit Network’s Elwood Downing and Leslie Williamson about the bandwidth situation in the Hillsdale area and asked for their help in finding a solution. They decided to arrange a meeting with the City of Hillsdale, Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities, Hillsdale Community Library, Hillsdale County, Hillsdale County Intermediate School District (ISD), Hillsdale Community Health Center, Jackson Community College, and Merit Network to discuss the creation of a local IP network.

In December 2006, the invited organizations met, and Merit presented several scenarios that showed how to create a community network. The meeting went well, and the over the next several months, attendees met to hammer out possible costs and network routes and to determine how the project would benefit the organizations. This period was important towards building trust and relationships between the organizations and cultivating ideas that would lead to the successful implementation of the project.

“It was important to the community and for the project that all interested parties were included in these meetings,” said Leslie Williamson of Merit Network. “While some organizations, such as Hillsdale County, chose not to come on as charter members at this time, the final engineering decision included slack loops for connecting County facilities in the future.”

In November 2007, the group met and set December 15, 2007 as the date that interested parties had to commit to the project.

When the group reconvened a month later, they created a partnership and established the charter members for the Hillsdale Community Network: the City of Hillsdale, Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities (BPU), Hillsdale College, Merit Network, and Hillsdale County ISD.

Each local organization had different reasons for joining the collaborative effort: Hillsdale College wanted to reduce and control its network costs; the City of Hillsdale wanted to make the area attractive for development, reduce its costs, and improve its infrastructure; and Hillsdale ISD wanted to significantly increase its bandwidth, which would allow them to offer better programs and distance learning initiatives to its schools. The goals for the project were different for each organization, but together they saw the value of creating a local IP network.

“The biggest challenge was getting the right people in the room at the right time,” according to Zenz. “Even though each person was concerned with different aspects, we were able to see what we had in common.”

“Merit made it extremely easy for us to come together,” said JC Morris, supervisor of technology for Hillsdale ISD.

Creating the Local Network Ring

Several connection methods had been considered for the local network, as well as options for linking to Merit’s backbone network via fiber-optic connections at locations in nearby counties. The plan that was agreed upon would create a local, fiber-optic network ring in Hillsdale, connecting the charter members networks, and then build a new fiber-optic connection to connect to Merit’s backbone network, with assistance from Jackson County ISD. Hillsdale College and Hillsdale County ISD would both serve as network access point (NAP) locations for the network, creating redundant network NAPs.

Merit Network received board approval to amortize the cost of the project over five years. The Hillsdale charter members then finalized details of the interconnect agreements and signed the contracts in June 2008.

For the next few months, Merit worked with local fiber contractors on engineering issues related to the new IP network ring. Since Hillsdale BPU owned the telephone poles in the city, the permitting process went smoothly, and the fiber connections to the the City of Hillsdale, Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities, and Hillsdale County ISD were provisioned in October 2008. The completed splice work linked Hillsdale College to the local network ring.

“Merit has managed these projects in their entirety and provides regular updates. We all celebrated when the local fiber ring was completed. This was a real milestone and was accomplished with input and support from all the charter members. It was exciting to see all the cooperation and collaboration from the community come to fruition,” Williamson said.

The second part of the project, building a fiber optic connection to Merit’s backbone northeast of Hillsdale, encountered a delay since approval from another utility was required to use the telephone poles between Hillsdale and Hanover for a make-ready connection. This is one of may hurdles that can be encountered when building fiber. Once the permitting process is concluded, the fiber build from Hillsdale to Hanover is expected to be completed in mid-to-late 2009. Once this is done, the Hillsdale community will be connected to Merit’s backbone in Jackson. Also, Hillsdale County ISD and Jackson County ISD will have a direct pair of fiber connections for them to provision.

Benefits to the Community

With changing education mandates from the State of Michigan and shrinking budgets, Morris believes the new network will help Hillsdale County ISD offer its students better educational opportunities and make it possible to share resources with other ISDs around Michigan.

“We cannot only share teachers and curriculum, but we can share data and other educational resources,” said Morris.

They can now stream videos from other school districts in the state and provide more distance learning to area schools. Morris believes that networks like the Hillsdale Community Network offer many exciting opportunities for schools and students.

“It’s not going to be long before schools are only limited by their imaginations,” Morris said.

For the City of Hillsdale, the benefits of the new local network have been lower costs, improved infrastructure, and opportunities for economic development in Hillsdale.

“We saw a cost reduction for the city,” according to Eric Macy, contractor for the City of Hillsdale and Nonik. “We knew that we needed infrastructure for the future. We could have done a local network on our own, but we wanted to collaborate with others. If we had to do it all ourselves, it would have taken a lot longer to pull off.”

“We want to bill the city as a progressive place for economic development. As part of this project, we were able to provide some economic development.”

The advantages for Hillsdale College were reduced networking costs, improved connectivity, and a better connected community.

“The benefits to geographical communities in regards to communication, cooperation, and collaboration are so important,” said Elwood Downing, vice president for member relations, communications & professional learning at Merit Network. “They can come together as a grass roots community to develop partnerships and share their knowledge. The Hillsdale community spoke at the Internet2 Conference last October and was able to share their experiences with others in Michigan and abroad. They opened the eyes of others as to what can be accomplished when organizations come together and develop something tangible.”

The Opportunities

For Macy, an exciting component of building the new network is the ability to provide more services to the local network’s members in the future.

“You build the road and figure out what you’re going to put on it,” he said. “(The network) is something that multiple organizations can use for multiple purposes—Internet, phone service, and more.”

Zenz said that the network has laid the groundwork for improved communications between the organizations and allowed members to get the right amount of bandwidth for their needs.

“(Hillsdale College) was the large bandwidth user, and the ISD wasn’t using as much. But (the ISD) has tripled their usage since the initial idea,” Zenz said.

The Future

Future goals for the local network include adding more Hillsdale area organizations as members and adding a redundant connection to the east of Hillsdale.

Macy said that the city is pursuing companies to locate a data center in Hillsdale, which would be connected to the network ring. The data center could be used by the network’s charter members and for economic development.

About the City of Hillsdale

Hillsdale is located in South Central Michigan, bordering Indiana and Ohio. This incorporated community has a population of approximately 9000 residents. As the county seat for Hillsdale County, the City of Hillsdale was established in 1839 and chartered in 1869.

About Hillsdale College

Founded in 1844, Hillsdale College is an independent, coeducational, residential, liberal arts college with a student body of about 1,300. Its four-year curriculum leads to the bachelor of arts or bachelor of science degree, and it is accredited by the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools.

About Hillsdale County ISD

The Hillsdale County Intermediate School District is a service agency. The programs and services offered by the ISD are a direct result of the determined needs of the community. Success is based on our ability to meet the needs of our customers having been identified as Students, Employers, Employees/Vendors, Job Seekers, and Parents and Community.

About Merit Network

Merit Network, Inc., a non-profit corporation governed by Michigan’s public universities, owns and operates America’s longest-running regional research and education network. Founded in 1966, Merit supports the high-performance networking needs of Michigan’s universities, colleges, K-12 schools, libraries, state government, healthcare, and other non-profit organizations. Through Merit, Michigan’s research and education organizations have access to leading-edge network research, state and national collaborative initiatives and international peering.