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Merit To Begin Backbone Expansion

Reprinted from WWJ’s Great Lakes Innovation and Technology Report

Michigan’s Internet backbone is about to get a whole lot stronger.

Construction is expected to begin soon on a 1,017-mile Internet fiber line project along several corridors, mostly in rural, relatively thinly populated parts of the state, financed mostly by federal stimulus money.

The project is the brain child of Merit Network Inc., an organization started in 1966 to link the early computers of Michigan State University, the University of Michigan and Wayne State University. Today, Merit provides high-speed Internet connectivity to school districts, colleges and universities, municipalities and nonprofits.

However, Merit’s fiber network ends at a line running from Muskegon to Big Rapids to Mt. Pleasant to Midland. The Thumb, northern Lower Peninsula and the Upper Peninsula aren’t served directly by Merit fiber.

But thanks to a $33.3 million federal grant, proposals are now out to help Merit build a $41.6 million fiber-optic system along four corridors:

  • A southern corridor running along the state’s southernmost tier of counties, connecting Monroe, Adrian, Hillsdale, Coldwater, Three Rivers and Berrien Springs.

  • A western corridor running north from Berrien Springs through Benton Harbor, Zeeland, Muskegon, Ludington (with a side spur to Luther), Manistee, Beulah, Traverse City, Charlevoix, Petoskey and Mackinaw City.

  • A central corridor running north from Mt. Pleasant through Clare, Gladwin, Houghton Lake, Grayling, Gaylord and Hillman.

  • A northeast corridor starting in Midland and connecting Bay City, Tawas City and Oscoda.

Stovall said the project is listed as “a middle mile project, offer transportation between cities, not a “last mile” project directly conecting homes and businesses.

“We’re more focused on bringing in the long haul infrastrucutre where the local ISPs will have an opportunity to tie their infrastructure across a larger geographic area,” Stovall said. “Where there is a lack of competitive broadband infrastructure, I do believe this will help spur economic development. The ISPs currently serving those local areas will have the benefit of using this infrastructure, lowering their costs and helping them better serve their communities.”

The project will also connect to 38 so-called anchor institutions — schools, libraries, public safety, non profit and local government — in the project area, improving their Web access.

Besides Merit, other partners pitching in on the project include local Internet Service Providers of Lansing and Lynx Network Group LLC of Kalamazoo.

Stovall said current plans call for the entire network to be completed by March 2012.

Merit has also submitted a stimulus proposal for an additional 1,272 of high-speed fiber in the Upper Peninsula, a route starting in Sault Ste. Marie, running west to Seney, Munising and Marquette, dropping south to Gwinn, Sagola and Iron Mountain, then turning back north to Covington, Baraga and Houghton.

Stovall said speeds available to users on the system would range up to an eye-popping 10 gigabits per second.