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Northeast Michigan Consortium Connects its Eight Michigan Works! Locations Using Merit Network

In 2006, Liz Fagel, wide area network administrator for Northeast Michigan Consortium (NEMC), was invited to be part of a fiber-optic network consortium in Alpena, the Alpena Regional Fiber Consortium (ARFC). The goal of the organization was to improve network connectivity to the Northeast Michigan community, which had been underserved by network providers for many years. After meeting with other Alpena organizations and Merit Network, Northeast Michigan Consortium became a charter member of ARFC in September 2006.

Partnering with Merit, ARFC used funds from a grant and its members to connect 40 locations, including the NEMC’s Michigan Works! location in Alpena, with over 100 miles of fiber-optic cabling. The results of the new Merit Network connection and ARFC fiber network were lower connection costs and a significant improvement in connectivity for Northeast Michigan Consortium’s Alpena facility.

Meanwhile, NEMC’s seven other locations across Northern Michigan were encountering network problems and disappointing service. Based on her years of experience with Merit Network as a dial-in provider and through the Alpena Regional Fiber Consortium, Fagel believed that Merit could help.

“We were having a lot of severe problems, in particular with support and upper level support for our VPN,” said Fagel. “A big plus of going with Merit was that I knew how Merit’s network operations center (NOC) works.”

To find a solution to the problem, Merit’s Teresa Raymond and Elwood Downing arranged a conference call with Liz Fagel to discuss ways of improving connectivity. Merit Network proposed a wide area network solution that would save the organization money for its bandwidth and significantly improve the quality of network service to the seven locations.

To expedite the process of connecting Northeast Michigan Consortium’s locations, Dale Vermilye, network core and member provisioning engineer, and Merit’s network operations staff proposed a creative plan to economically provision circuits to Atlanta, Cheboygan, Gaylord, Grayling, Lincoln, Mio, and Onaway. Merit’s point-to-point network connections would allow all of NEMC’s locations to be connected to each other and to Merit’s high-speed backbone. In addition, the plan was significantly cheaper than the similar option from NEMC’s original network provider.

“We try to find the best solution, the best connectivity, and the best price,” according to Vermilye. “The quality of the service is what it comes down to, and the point-to-point connection was the best solution.”

After weighing its options, Northeast Michigan Consortium determined that it was able break its contract with the Alpena-area provider due to violations of its Service Level Agreement. NEMC then agreed to connect all eight of its sites in Northeast Michigan to Merit Network.

Moving Ahead

Within days of receiving the signed agreement, Merit Network began the process of connecting the Michigan Works! locations in Atlanta, Cheboygan, Gaylord, Grayling, Lincoln, Mio, and Onaway.

The network operations team engineered a channelized T3 circuit connection to Merit’s backbone network and then connected the NEMC locations with local T1 circuits. The new connections were lit in late April, linking the eight NEMC locations with point-to-point connections.

“It was more cost-effective to bring the point-to-point circuits back to Grand Rapids,” Vermilye said, “than try to implement point-to-point circuits in Northern Michigan.”

“I had a lot of cooperation from Merit’s engineers,” Liz Fagel said. “I had a special setup with a technical service provider here, and I put my person in contact with Merit. They worked it all out. It was pretty seamless.”

The new point-to-point connections open the possibility to implementing services that take advantage of the network, including Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) phone service and interactive videoconferencing. Other advantages of the new connections include lower latency, increased stability, and the ability to implement quality of service.

“Some network applications are latency sensitive, like VoIP and video. In other words, if it takes too long for the server to respond because of a poor connection, the application won’t respond correctly,” said Teresa Raymond, Merit Network’s not-for-profit, healthcare, and government member relations manager. “With the point-to-point connection, the issue with latency is reduced or eliminated.”

“I’m using Merit now for my WAN and VPN, connecting to all of my sites,” Fagel said. “I’ll be using them for my phone service, which will save us lots of money when I have it implemented agency-wide.”

Adapting to Change

When a network connection is established, Merit Network is prepared for the possibility that the Member may move to a different building in the same town or even to a different city. In the case of NEMC’s Cheboygan location, the lease for the building was coming to an end, and NEMC decided to move to a different place in Cheboygan. Even though the connection to the current location was completed in April, Merit adapted to the location change, moving the network link to the new facility.

“I just worked with Teresa and explained when I needed the changes and why I needed them. It was an easy process,” said Fagel.

“We try to accommodate our Members and adjust our network to meet their needs,” Raymond said. “When we learned about the location change, our engineers began formulating a plan to connect the new location.”

The network connection to the new location in Cheboygan was completed in June.

“Northeast Michigan is a very underserved region with limited service provider choices,” Raymond said. “Now that Merit is offering services in that area, there’s more options for organizations. With the successful implementation of NEMC’s point-to-point connections around Northern Michigan, we can use it as the basis of offering similar solutions to organizations in Atlanta, Cheboygan, Grayling, Gaylord, or other cities.”

More About Northeast Michigan Consortium

Northeast Michigan Consortium operates eight Michigan Works! locations in Alcona County, Alpena County, Cheboygan County, Crawford County, Montmorency County, Oscoda County, Otsego County, and Presque Isle County.

Michigan Works! is the largest and most progressive workforce development association in the United States. The Michigan Works! System is open to everyone for information gathering, local and state labor market information, and self-service career information.

Northeast Michigan Consortium became a Member of Merit Network in 2006.