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Merit Network & Hillsdale Area Celebrate Completion of REACH-3MC Network Segment

HILLSDALE, Mich. – On January 17, Merit Network and Hillsdale County celebrated the completion of a significant segment of the REACH-3MC project with a dedication ceremony at Hillsdale Community Library. The event was attended by indiviuals from Hillsdale and nearby communities.
Watch archived video of the event
The REACH Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative (REACH-3MC) will build 2,287 miles of open-access, advanced fiber-optic network through rural and underserved communities in Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas. REACH-3MC is funded by two grants (Round I and Round II) from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), commonly referred to as the Stimulus Package.

Speakers at the dedication ceremony included: Congressman Tim Walberg; Mary Wolfram, Director of Economic Development, City of Hillsdale; Eric Macy, Information Technology, Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities; David Zenz, Executive Director of Information Technology Services, Hillsdale College; David Holcomb, Information Technology Director, Hillsdale County; James Jones, Information Technology Director, Jackson Community College; Denis Walsh, Chief Relationship Officer, OARnet; and Bob Stovall, Vice President of Network Engineering and Operations, Merit Network.

View an archive of the Hillsdale Dedication video.

The following are excerpts from the speaker presentations:

Congressman Tim Walberg
Representative for Michigan’s 7th District

“Larry Arnn of Hillsdale College is speaking to my colleagues, the House Republican Caucus at our annual planning retreat in Williamsburg. When I told the Speaker of the House that I wasn’t going to be there, he was a little bit exasperated that I wouldn’t come to the planning retreat. I told him that I’ve been gone about three weeks from my district, and I want to go back and hear success and see what true leadership is about. Not only at the State of the State Address last night, but also be here today to see something come to fruition in a foundational way that I’m very jealous of. I live in the suburbs of Tipton, and my best capabilities right now are a MiFi. We’ve gone through all of the processes to get some speed, you know.

“I just got back from a nine-day trip in the Middle East and the Near East, starting out in Istanbul and then going to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, and the West Bank. Then Cyprus, up to Beirut, then Lebanon, Algiers, Morocco, and ending up in Spain. In all of those places, except Beirut where we didn’t dare turn our electronic equipment on, every place I was at I had the capabilities of going on the Internet and having data connections back to the States and wherever I needed. And that is what is happening in the world. It’s an exciting thing to know that I have that capability, especially for a guy like me.

“Back when I was working at the intermediate school district in Lenawee, when they were first getting ready to put in the fiber optics for this that we’re finally seeing in place now. That was back in the late 80s and early to mid-90s. I didn’t understand what that all meant. Interactive classroom situations and distance learning, boy that was cool, but when my secretary said there are emails coming in to our office now, do you want to respond to them? I said ‘Come on, if they can’t write or type a letter, address it, put a stamp on it, and send it to me, I’m not about to deal with it.’ If you want to deal with it, you deal with it. Now I can’t live without that. I’ve got my Mac Book Pro. I’ve got my iPhone. I FaceTimed with my daughter in Uganda this week. I mean it’s just unbelievable. So for Hillsdale and the surrounding communities to have the capabilities to interact with the world in a global economy, understanding that the world has more of the information that we have, and that they can get it now, whether it’s Tunisia, whether it’s Libya, or whether it’s Algiers [sic] which is a police state there. People are getting information from the world, and that’s changing their perspective. We’re part of that, and the capabilities are brought here just abundant.

“I know this was a private-public sector partnership that went on, for the good of the community. Ways of trying to find ‘those costs are terrible, how can we do it more efficiently? How can we collaborate and make it work.’ How can places like Hillsdale College, that doesn’t want anything to do with the government, work in a relationship with public-private entities for the common good? I think that’s huge. I think that speaks to where we need to go. Now if I could just get it hooked up to my own home. I wouldn’t be happier. I’m hoping that someone’s listening out there. I won’t have to put up dishes or MiFi’s, and certainly never go back to dial-up. I can be part of the modern world myself in the suburbs of Tipton, Michigan.

“Congratulations. Celebrate this. Let’s move forward, and let’s do it as efficiently as possible. As a federal government, I’m not here to help you, but for the fact of reducing the unnecessary costs for the federal government, so that this type of thing can happen here.”

Congressman Tim Walberg and Merit's Bob Stovall speak at the REACH-3MC Hillsdale event

Bob Stovall
Vice President of Network Engineering and Operations, Merit Network

“First, I want to thank some folks who have helped to make this all possible, who have not already been mentioned. I’d like to thank our project sub-recipients: TC3, Lynx Network Group, and

“The other organizations who helped make this possible are our construction companies, contractors and suppliers. In this area, we had three primary construction companies: Earthcom, Fiber Link, and Western Tel-Com. Many of you may have seen their trucks up and down the roads. Our suppliers were Commscope, Cisco Systems, Juniper Networks, Adva Optical Networking, and Turnkey Network Solutions.

“There’s another critical component that often gets overlooked, and that’s the local municipalities, the pole owners, and other organizations that we had to work with to build this infrastructure. I want to give a special thanks to the Hillsdale BPU. I remember last spring I got a call from them, asking me to come down and look at the some poles here. The Hillsdale BPU helped us redesign the routes through here to make it successful for everyone–not only for Merit and the REACH project, but the local community. That was the type of collaboration that we enjoyed.

“Consumers Power was also a critical partner in this venture, helping us to build this and build this on time. I’d also like to thank the municipalities, counties, and villages who helped with our permits. I’d also like to thank the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT) and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) for their help with this project.

“I mentioned to David Zenz earlier that the collaboration, that we originally started here in Hillsdale, was one of the foundations that made us successful in getting the grant that we did. We learned some lessons and what we needed to do to apply for the grant to create a larger opportunity for Michigan. Understanding the relationship between the private sector and public sector, our schools, our businesses, our counties, and our relationship with the state–and everything that ties together–we learned through our work in 2006 and before, and all of the way up to the time that we were working on the grant. Without us working together then, this would not have been possible. I believe that. It really gave us the understanding of how to model a relationship with our sub-recipients, with our commercial entities, and with the municipalities throughout this whole project. All of us working together to get the full benefit. Not just for the benefit of our public sector–our schools, our libraries, our colleges, and municipal entities–but also the private sector, our businesses and homes, and all of the opportunities that this can create. It would not have been possible without that early collaboration, and I want to thank all of you for your patience.

“Where do we go from here? What we are celebrating today is just the foundation. The collaboration with OARnet and to create another connection between our two states, and the ability of our entities–our schools, our research facilities, our educators, our libraries–and all of our public resources to exchange directly, to exchange in different ways, and to create new possibilities. That’s part of it. The Ohio component is a nice story and is something that is greatly needed for both of our states.

“It also creates new opportunities for our businesses. We know that to create a strong community, we need great schools, great libraries, and great access to our municipal services. And we need to have a growing private sector. This infrastructure should be able to benefit schools, our homes, and businesses.”

Mary Wolfram
Director of Economic Development, City of Hillsdale

“What we’re doing here is celebrating,” Wolfram said. “That’s really what we should be doing because many of the people here in this room were key to making this happen.

“I’m in the business of economic development, and we are in a key position now to start again. The interesting piece of this for me about this fiber connectivity is that it is almost literally in the exact same location as the railroads that were built and connected Hillsdale to the rest of the world. It was the infrastructure that put Hillsdale on the map. Here we are 100 or more years later with a new infrastructure and a way to connect to the rest of the world.”

“We here in Hillsdale are in the position to host high-tech businesses, data centers, and telecommuters that want to work in a high-tech business but live in a great, safe community like we have.”

“I just want to say, ‘Bring it on.’ We are open for business. We’re very excited about this fiber being here, and anyone who knows anyone who wants to locate a business in a beautiful, rural area community with triple redundancy, high-speed optic fiber, please let them know that we are here.”

Hillsdale's Mary Wolfram and Hillsdale County's David Holcomb speak at the REACH-3MC Hillsdale event

David Zenz
Executive Director of Information Technology Services, Hillsdale College

“I want to give you a number… 5,486. Any idea what that number is? I’ll give you an idea. Today we have 5,486 times more bandwidth than we did 20 years ago at Hillsdale College. That’s been the increase over that time period.

“Today the presence of a good Internet circuit is critical to the mission of the college. Nearly every aspect of what we do has a digital component to it: academic, administrative, recruitment, marketing, and even recreational. Most make increased use of our Internet connection on a daily basis. These days students can arrive with up to four or five devices, not just a desktop or a laptop. They have all kinds of devices, and we need to be able to keep up. This Internet connection allows us to be able to think about it and breathe a little bit more easily now.

“When I was first hired by the college, one of my to-do’s was to establish an Internet connection. Whatever that was? That was one of my first to-do’s, and my first encounter with Merit was on my first official day on the job on June 2, 1992. I was at a Merit Conference at the University of Nevada, and by the end of that year, we did have an Internet connection. We had established it. It took a number or months to do that, and the size of that connection for the entire college was 56 kilobits (KB). That’s the modem speed for one individual, but that was enough then. And it was enough for several years. The reason was that the Internet of ’92 was quite different from today. There was really no public access. The Internet was an academic, scientific, and government research network… There were things like research documents, various forms of data, photos, and sound files. That was about it. It was pretty bland.

“Within a year or so, a former student walked in one day and loaded a piece of software… Sweet. It was the first popular web browser; it was called Mosaic. And Mosaic brought it all together within a rich HTML environment. It was predecessor of what we all experience today, and every few days, I’d see that someone had created a new web site. I’d look at it, and it was interesting. Then it was every day, someone was creating a web site. Then two a day, and you know where that’s going. It exploded from that point on. It wasn’t long before our Internet bandwidth needed to be increased… The one-time cost to swap out equipment in those days was about $7,500, and I think at one point we even paid up to $11,000 at one point to swap out the equipment. The cost of those data circuits increased as well. The cost of that very first 56 KB connection was $3,775, and by the time that we all got together a few years ago, the cost of the circuit that we were running was $26,820. It was going to be too long before I was going to need two of those circuits… We recently just signed a contract that our bandwith will be 300 megabits (MB).

“I can tell you that there were times that I got to thinking, ‘You know, Merit ought to extend its network backbone to Hillsdale.’ For all good reasons, but the most was that if I could eliminate that expensive data circuit and the associated cost, we could plow that money back in and get more bandwidth for the academic mission, for the students and for what we were trying to do. It was a little bit self-serving, I have to admit, and I used to suggest this to them often. We’d be out to lunch, and I’d say, ‘You know you ought to bring an Internet circuit to the city of Hillsdale.’ You can even put it in the data center. We’d let you do that…

“In December 2006, this community got together: the ISD, the city, the BPU, the library, public safety, the county and the hospital. We kicked it around. Could we get a fiber connection to Hillsdale? Well, maybe. Merit did some feasibility studies, developed the project cost-allocation models, and by the end of the year, the college, the ISD, and the city of Hillsdale, along with Merit, formed a collaboration and strapped on the fiber to Hillsdale project. We all made a five-year commitment to do that. There were others in the room that at the time it didn’t make sense, for good reason, but we still thought that if maybe if we build it, they will come. That still proved out to be the case as well. It was real good for the community and for those that participated. Since then, Jackson Community College, South Central Michigan Works, and the County (of Hillsdale) have been able to come on to that collaborative venture. It was a good start, and we were excited about it. But we barely got started before we realized that we would need a redundant route, because if something happened to that data circuit, like a squirrel chews into the fiber like happened last week, we lose that connection…. So today is a day of celebration, and it would be a huge understatement to say that we have a redundant connection. It would not do justice for what has just been accomplished here in the community.

“With the REACH project, years of Merit’s planning to build a statewide network met with opportunity on a grand scale, and Hillsdale is smack-dab in the middle of that opportunity. Today, Merit Network’s Southern Corridor, our Southern Corridor, is in place, and that’s a huge thing. Two great statewide networks, Merit Network and OARNet, are joined together, right here in Hillsdale. North, south, east, and west meet right here. Bandwidth is abundant. With that kind of redundancy, interruption of service is unlikely. The possibilities are only limited by what we haven’t imagined yet. Not bad for a place that was on the edge of the frontier not that many years ago. I’m very excited.”

Eric Macy
Information Technology, Hillsdale Board of Public Utilities

“Railroads connected the U.S. in the 1800s, and then the car came along in the 1900s,” Macy said. “We built roads and interstates. They had to interconnect those, and that really helped connect the country and move things along faster. Since the 90’s, fiber has been put in the ground and on poles to interconnect our metropolitan areas, and a lot of the stuff that we’re talking about today is now in rural areas. This is now the big kick-off for fiber in rural areas.

“Now we’ve built the main line, which is the REACH network that we’re talking about today. Now we’ve got to start constructing all those connectors. We need to connect businesses to the main line. We’ve got to have ISPs (Internet service providers) on this to provide access and lower costs to businesses. That’s what this is all about. That is the economic driver that this network provides.

“Hillsdale is a junction east and west for the REACH network. We’re also a junction point north and south, connecting to Ohio and OARNET. We’re not only an important point going east and west, but a critical point going south as well.

“We sit 90 minutes from a lot of metropolitan areas: Toledo, Ann Arbor, Lansing, Kalamazoo. We’re near a lot of things, but not next to something specific. So we’re kind of isolated, but still easily accessible. Those are great attributes to have to locate a data center. People want to be close to their data, but they want it far enough away so if a disaster happens in their town or wherever they’re living, it doesn’t effect their data–that they still have a place where that lives. We also have low-cost power production in our community, which is becoming rarer and rarer all the time. And we have some of the lowest rates in the state, so we’re very competitive when you talk about putting a data center in.”

Hillsdale College's David Zenz and Hillsdale BPU's Eric Macy speak at the REACH-3MC Hillsdale event

James Jones
Information Technology Director, Jackson Community College

“You may be wondering why Jackson–I mean this is Hillsdale, right? (The network) really has been a gateway to a lot of our other sites, and it continues to be. To put this in perspective–I mean what really does drive business to Merit… (Pointing to a map of the REACH-3MC network). All of those circuits, all of those lines, those colored segments. It would truly not be feasible for the counties, the communities, the schools, and the other non-profits to afford those circuits using the commercial market that’s out there.”

To put it in perspective, we recently hooked up our Lenawee Center to the REACH Network’s Southern Corridor. I was paying $16,000 for a point-to-point circuit from Jackson to Lenawee. I was also getting one from a local commodity Internet provider for 9 MB for $16,000 a year. $32,000 for relatively slow bandwidth. (Now) I expect that I will end up spending probably not more than $1,000 a year for that particular connection fee. The bandwidth has gone from 12 MB to 1000 MB, or the potential of 1000 MB. The multiplication of the opportunities here is just immense. For the technology to evolve as quickly as it does, it’s very satisfying to be an IT director, along with many IT professionals here, to work with a vendor with a vendor who has been around as long as they have and who has been able to adapt as much as they have. I could look through my list of vendors, and there’s hundreds and hundreds. There’s very, very few who have been around as long as Merit has while still providing exceptional value to its customers.”

“On the business end of this of why JCC wanted to contribute to this–besides saving money, which helps us lowers the cost of education which we know to have been an issue in this day and age. We also see that there is the extreme value of our students being able to connect with low-cost, rural ISP connections. Many of our offerings are online. Actually, one of our largest campuses, if you’d like to call it that, would be the online campus, and it’s continuing to grow. We realize that the ISP market has a ways to go to be competitive and affordable for many of our students. We’re looking forward to the partnerships that Merit has created as part of the ARRA funding in order to make this all happen.”

“Most of our online traffic is generated within Hillsdale, Jackson, and Lenawee Counties. So given that the (REACH-3MC network) will have significant benefits for those counties, it really excites me to see more online students and higher speeds for them.”

Denis Walsh
Chief Relationship Officer, OARnet

“I like to refer to us as the Merit of Ohio. It’s kind of an easy way for you to kind of get a grasp of what we do in Ohio. We serve the education communities. We serve all of education, all of the K-12 community, state government, local government, public television stations, public radio stations; it just continues to grow. We’re a state backbone. We don’t necessarily serve everyone’s homes and businesses, but what we do is put the network further out into the state. What that does is lowers the cost of getting to a high-speed backbone. What that does is (it allows the rural areas of the state to connect.) What we’ve found is that there are a lot of jewels in that area, and what we’re finding out is that by making these types of services available in those areas that businesses what to locate there. A lot of businesses look at the cost of doing business in a major metropolitan area, things like the workforce and so on. Those costs are much higher in those areas, so they’re excited to be expanding into the rural areas. It’s very exciting and a tremendous opportunity.”

“Merit and OARnet are very similar, and what I’d like to talk about is the OARnet and Merit relationship. What we’ve learned over time is that when two states work together, we can actually lower our costs of doing business. Merit and OARnet use something called Internet2, and one of the things that we’ve found is that by Merit and OARnet sharing a partnership in accessing that, that we can each get a tremendous additional bandwidth at a lower cost to each of us.”

“As we know the Internet always has a cost per megabit attached to it, and it gets to be expensive. Even with the costs going down, it gets to be expensive because you’re paying on a usage basis. We use the intra-Ohio or intra-network between our states, and when you talk about moving data between the states, you can do it at a very low cost. What that does is open up opportunities for collaboration. With the University of Michigan and Ohio State working together, they may come up with the next new application, the next Facebook. There are a lot of opportunities, whether it’s health care or other types of things. All the opportunities are opened up and expanded because of the integration of our network. That’s why we look at Hillsdale as a gateway to that opportunity and collaboration. We’re very excited about this opportunity.”

About Merit Network

Merit Network Inc., is a nonprofit corporation owned and governed by Michigan’s public universities. Merit owns and operates America’s longest-running regional research and education network. In 1966, Michigan’s public universities created Merit as a shared resource to help meet their common need for networking assistance. Since its formation, Merit Network has remained at the forefront of research and education networking expertise and services. Merit provides high-performance networking and IT solutions to Michigan’s public universities, colleges, K-12 organizations, libraries, state government, healthcare, and other non-profit organizations.

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The REACH Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative (REACH-3MC) will build 2,287 miles of open-access, advanced fiber-optic network through rural and underserved communities in Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas. The network will also provide backhaul to key connection points in Wisconsin and Minnesota. Led by Merit Network, Michigan’s research and education network, REACH-3MC includes sub-recipients from the private sector to make broadband readily available to households and businesses that lack adequate service options in the 52 counties that make up the project service area. REACH-3MC is funded by a two grants (Round I and Round II) from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), commonly referenced as the Stimulus Package.