GRAND HAVEN — At a community meeting next week, representatives from the Ann Arbor-based academic data network providers Merit Network Inc. will present a new route that a fiber-optic network extension will follow through Grand Haven.
The new route is the result of a lot of hard work and the cooperation of a number of local organizations. And it brings full circle a process that has taken the better part of two years to complete.
The meeting will take place Jan. 19 at the Loutit District Library in Grand Haven. In addition to providing the public with an overview of Merit Network’s Rural, Education, Anchor, Community and Healthcare – Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative (REACH-3MC) project, it will showcase collaboration between Merit, the Chamber of Commerce Grand Haven, Spring Lake, Ferrysburg and many other local organizations that has resulted in an approved route change through the city.
It was nearly two years ago when Joy Gaasch, president of the Chamber, attended a similar community meeting and inquired about a portion of Merit’s REACH-3MC network build-out that was rerouted around Grand Haven.
In 2010, Merit Network received two grants from the National Telecommunication and Information Administration’s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program that help fund their REACH-3MC project. Through REACH-3MC, Merit will build 2,287 miles of open-access, advanced fiber-optic network through rural and underserved communities in Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas.
Initially routing the fiber path through Grand Haven, project planners at Merit Network were forced to reroute the network due to a number of issues posed by crossing the Grand River with fiber-optic line, which included environmental concerns, cost and timing.
“Prior to the project, we knew that there were issues with broadband technology in Grand Haven,” Gaasch said. “Companies knew they would need new service to continue to compete. Ss a chamber, we wanted to find a way to work together as a group and find a way to reroute the fiber back through Grand Haven.”
Like Gaasch, the Merit team was also eager to find a solution that would benefit the Grand Haven community and further their project’s objectives.
“Designing a network with the scope of REACH-3MC that meets all the federal requirements of the grants is a complex process,” said Bob Stovall, vice president, network operations and engineering for Merit Network and one of Gaasch’s key contacts at Merit. “As an organization we pride ourselves on our willingness and ability to work with local communities in a way that others don’t. Merit is very proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish working with the Grand Haven community.”
When Gaasch learned of the issues that contributed to the reroute away from Grand Haven, she set to work engaging community stakeholders. It just so happened that no less than a year prior Grand Haven Area Public Schools had installed conduit beneath the bed of the Grand River that could house the Merit project fiber.
What followed was a meeting that brought together representatives from Merit Network, the Chamber, Grand Haven Board of Light and Power, Grand Haven Area Public Schools, Spring Lake Public Schools, Ottawa Area Intermediate School District and Ottawa County.
“The easiest part was actually bringing all interested parties together. Everyone was excited for the opportunity and wanted to make this work,” said Gaasch. “It’s something that the Chamber does on a regular basis: bringing groups together.”
Merit was granted access to the conduit beneath the Grand River. The simple part was redesigning the fiber route with the cooperation of the participating Grand Haven organizations. The challenge lay in getting that new route approved by the NTIA.
To guard against waste and to ensure grant funds are used for their intended purpose, any major route change Merit makes to the project requires the approval of the NTIA. Submitting the change request and following up with the NTIA took considerable time and a lot of hard work on the part of the Merit staff.
“Submitting the change request and following up through the process took a lot of time and energy of the Merit staff,” said Stovall. “It’s very rewarding to know that our hard work will benefit others like those who we have worked with in the Grand Haven community.”
Finally the good news came in December. The new route in Grand Haven was approved.
“We were persistent, and Merit was very understanding and great to work with. They did an excellent job of communicating to us through each step in the process, but the local folks of the Grand Haven community really made this happen,” Gaasch said.
The Merit-led REACH-3MC project stands to benefit a number of community anchor institutions in the Grand Haven area as a result of the new route. Community anchor institutions are schools, libraries, colleges, health care facilities, government offices, public safety and other non-profit organizations.
Merit Network, a Michigan-based non-profit with a history dating back to the 1960s, will offer local community anchor institutions connection to their high-speed backbone and interconnection with hundreds of other anchors throughout the state. In addition to improved service, Merit will enable them to cut-costs through collaboration and resource sharing.
“There are a number of public institutions in the Grand Haven area that are in need of expanded service,” Gaasch said. “The way libraries operate has changed so much over the last decade. The libraries here are very interested in what Merit brings to the community.”
The benefits of REACH-3MC do not stop at community anchors. Because REACH-3MC was planned with a comprehensive community approach in mind, Merit has engaged commercial Internet Service Providers who will participate in the network as sub-recipients. The REACH-3MC sub-recipients will improve service to homes and businesses.
“There are a number of local companies in the hi-tech field that are in need of better access to technology. Governor Snyder talks about economic gardening, helping the companies we currently have here in Michigan grow, and Merit?s project will help businesses in Grand Haven do just that,” Gaasch added.
The public are welcome to attend the community meeting, “Better Broadband in Ottawa County” on January 19, 2012 at 3:00 PM. It will be held at the Loutit District Library. The meeting is hosted by Merit Network, the Chamber and the Loutit District Library, and will provide an opportunity to learn more about the project.
Interested parties can register for the meeting at: www.merit.edu/meritformichigan/meetings/