On February 10, 2011, President Barack Obama visited Marquette, Michigan and the campus of Northern Michigan University (NMU) to celebrate the growing success of NMU’s WiMAX Network. Northern has the largest educational WiMAX network in the United States, with coverage areas in a number of neighboring communities where many students and faculty reside. NMU is also one of the first universities in the US to deploy a WiMAX network.
The Obama Administration has been so impressed with the NMU WiMAX Network that they chose to announce the President’s National Wireless Initiative on Northern Michigan’s campus. The Initiative calls for expanded wireless coverage to 98% of Americans, reducing the Federal deficit by auctioning off government and commercial-use wireless spectrum, and for the deployment of a nationwide, interoperable wireless network exclusively for Public Safety. According to NMU Chief Technology Officer Dave Maki, President Obama sought to champion a success story of broadband deployment in a rural community.
“In rural areas like communities in the Upper Peninsula, it is too great a distance for DSL or Cable lines to serve adequately,” Maki said. “So if folks have any connection at home, it is most likely via satellite, which is not a good form of connection.”
In his remarks, the President explained that without the population density to support an infrastructure build-out, network providers simply won’t build the network necessary to connect small communities like those in the UP.
President Obama went on to place the United States’ challenge to deploy broadband resources to more communities in the context of the Continental Rail Road, the Rural Electrification Act and the construction of the Interstate Highway system.
“For our families and our businesses, high-speed wireless service, that’s the next train station; it’s the next off-ramp,” President Obama said. “It’s how we’ll spark new innovation, new investment, new jobs.”
“I think the President chose us because it’s a great example of the benefit that can be had by investing in broadband for rural communities, and also how to accomplish the build out successfully.”
Northern Michigan University has a student body that is made up of both individuals who live on campus as well as students who live off campus and commute on a regular basis. For the 3,000 students who live on campus, there are about 6,500 who live off campus in areas like the President described in his address where obtaining connectivity can be difficult.
The goal of the NMU WiMAX Network is to provide students and faculty who reside off campus with an effective means of accessing the Internet and education-related content online. The NMU WiMAX Network is now in its third year, and each year the NMU IT Team has worked to expand its coverage. Today, the Network Coverage Area includes the communities of Marquette, Marquette Township, Gwinn, Ishpeming, Negaunee, Big Bay, Chocolay Township and the K.I. Sawyer Air Force Base.
“By the end of this year, we will have covered approximately 95 percent of our off-campus student and faculty population,” Maki said. “And at a 3 to 10 [megabits per second] client connection rate, the capacity of the WiMAX Network is plenty to support their needs.”
The NMU IT Team formed reciprocal agreements with municipalities in the expanding coverage area that allowed the NMU Team to retrofit exiting towers with new network equipment. In exchange, public institutions like schools, local government and public safety have been able to utilize Virtual Local Area Network (VLAN) technology to create their own functioning networks in their own independent realm of the NMU WiMAX.
The WiMAX Network complements another long-running technology initiative at NMU that provides laptops for all full-time enrollment students. After a pilot year, the program debuted in 2000 with 7,400 laptops, and since then that number has never decreased. This year there were 9,500 laptops issued. The NMU WiMAX Network seeks to ensure that all students using those laptops have connectivity, regardless of where they live.
As part of President Obama’s Northern Michigan University visit, the President participated in a live video conference with students at Negaunee High School and Powell Township School in Big Bay, two communities benefiting from the expanded WiMAX coverage. The purpose of the demonstration was to exhibit the distance learning and telepresence capabilities enabled by the NMU WiMAX Network.
Negaunee High School is located 20 miles west of Marquette and was reached with a simple radio link from Marquette. Powell Township School is 25 miles northwest up the Lake Superior coastline and required the NMU IT team to implement a creative solution to ensure they would be able to interact with the President and Negaunee students. They actually bounced a radio feed from Northern’s campus to a lighthouse offshore in Lake Superior, and from there to a near-by water tower, which they could use to reach a class of middle school students at Powell Township School.
During the demonstration, when told he was in three locations at once, the President joked, “it’s the next best thing to cloning.”
“The connection was so great, it was like they were just having a regular conversation,” explained Maki. “In Big Bay, prior to this, the school only had a T1. And now they have the ability to experience telepresence.”
Even though they are nearly 35 miles away, Powell Township Students in Big Bay graduate to attend Negaunee High School. Thanks to the efforts of the local school board, each Powell Township School student has access to their very own laptop. And thanks to the NMU WiMAX Network, students will be able to do school work and access the Internet during long bus rides.
Local schools in the greater Marquette area hope to soon leverage their WiMAX capabilities to enable their students and educators with more distance learning tools, which would allow students to spend more time interacting with their teachers and fellow students from home and less time traveling to and from school.
As the network coverage has continued to grow, the NMU IT Team has maintained a high level of reliability and network performance. Northern Michigan University was one of the first campuses to offer campus-wide WiFi to its students on campus. The roll-out of the NMU WiMAX has sought to supplement WiFi for Northern users beyond the campus coverage area.
Recently, Dave Maki and his team have noticed some signs of ultimate success in IT implementation
“After 10 years now, the technology is so seamless that it is no longer a “wow” for students,” Maki explained. “It’s like a phone: you see a phone, you expect it work. On campus, off-campus, students use their wireless cards and they just work.”
One of Maki’s colleagues, Eric Smith, shared the story of driving to work one morning and encountering a student seated on the sidewalk with their laptop open. The colleague pulled over to ask what the student was doing, and the student explained that they were running late and needed to print out a paper: if they paused to send their document to the printer now, it would be ready by the time they arrived.
Maki hopes the buzz generated by President Obama’s visit and the growing success of the NMU Laptop program and WiMAX Network will increase student enrollment at Northern Michigan. Today, NMU is experiencing student enrollment numbers that are near their highest in 30 years.
Maki credits his team, Director of Technical Support, John Marra and Director of Telecommunications, Don Salo, Vice President Gavin Leach and President Les Wong, along with a university-wide effort, for the successful implementation of the NMU WiMAX network. He believes for other colleges and universities to replicate Northern’s success, it must be centrally-managed and come from a campus-wide commitment.
“The management of a WiMAX network like ours needs to be at the university-level, not between individual schools or colleges on campus,” he said. “The commitment needs to come from the President on down, otherwise it would be difficult for other colleges to come on board.”
Maki explained that because there was an ongoing, base-budget support for the NMU laptop program, it made it easier to add similar funding for network maintenance and upgrades. In years when there is a budget windfall for upgrades and maintenance, that money can then be allocated toward the build out of the WiMAX network.
Northern Michigan University’s WiMAX Network is linked to Merit Network’s fiber-optic backbone network by two 1 Gbps (Gigabit per second) connections. Northern Michigan has been a governing Member of Merit Network since January 1994, and hosts Merit’s Marquette fiber-optic backbone node.
Merit’s Broadband stimulus project, REACH-3MC, will fit the Merit node in Marquette with new equipment that will enable NMU with a 10 Gbps connection. Maki believes the expanded capacity will help to support the rollout of new, advanced services, especially cloud-based services and others that are trending in popularity like IPTV.
Looking to the future, Maki would like to see more of Northern’s Public University counterparts enable their students with access to their universities’ networks from other campuses. In the early days of the Internet, Merit Network facilitated “dial-up pools” in which students could access their own school’s dial-up network from any Merit node in the state.
Maki believes the technology and bandwidth exist today to enable Public Universities and their students with “broadband pools.” In the connected Michigan that Maki envisions, a NMU student visiting friends or relatives in any city that hosts one of the 13 Merit Governing Members, for example, the public university campuses in Houghton, East Lansing, Big Rapids or Dearborn, could access the Northern Michigan Network remotely by tapping into the NMU “pool.”
President Barack Obama is the third sitting President in history to visit Marquette, Michigan. In 1911, President William Taft visited Marquette and enjoyed a parade that was organized in his honor. And George W. Bush made a stop in Marquette while on the campaign trail in 2004.