ANN ARBOR — Merit Network Inc. last week announced the completion of approximately 292 additional miles of its REACH-3MC fiber-optic network buildout.

Merit completed and activated the optical network equipment used to “light” the newly installed fiber to provide network services, on the following segments; Centreville to Berrien Springs (66 miles), Mount Pleasant to Prudenville (87 miles), Gaylord to Hillman (57 miles), Hart to Scottville (43 miles), and Scottville to Luther (39 miles).

The fiber-optic cable lit today is part of the REACH-3MC “mainline.” Led by Merit, the goal of REACH-3MC project is to construct fiber-optic infrastructure that connects communities together. In the process, Merit connects community anchor institutions (schools, libraries, health care, government, public safety) by way of “laterals,” or spurs, from the mainline.

These segments contain 31 community anchor institutions receiving lateral connections along the completed network segments announced today. With the mainline now lit, Merit will coordinate with those institutions to work through their transition to the new and improved network service.

“I am proud that we are able to announce the lighting of these segments,” said Donald Welch, Merit president and CEO. “The optical equipment activated today will give Merit the ability to light multiple 10 gigabit (Gbps) waves for communities along these segments. Merit Member anchor institutions along these routes will have 1 gigabit (Gbps) network connection to Merit’s network. We are excited about what this project means to our community and for Michigan. It has been a tremendous effort, but absolutely worth it when you look at the payoff to our members.”

The announcement came after earlier announcements of segments lit between Berrien Springs and Hart, Michigan.

Merit also Thursday announced that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration has issued the REACH-3MC Round I project a no cost-extension.

The announcement came after Merit’s Dec. 31 completed milestones report, which stated that 98 percent of all strand, conduit and cable had been deployed on the 1,017-mile fiber-optic construction project. With the lion’s share of the infrastructure in place, Merit has also connected 53 Community Anchor Institutions of the 57 to be connected as part of the project.

In January 2010, the Merit-led REACH-3MC Round I project received funding from the federal stimulus through the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) to help construct a large fiber-optic network extension in rural and underserved areas of Michigan.

The NTIA oversees and administers BTOP. With the grant award of federal funding, the NTIA set a specific award period for REACH-3MC Round I project completion ending on Dec. 31, 2012.

Merit was informed early this week that based on the substantial progress made thus far, the NTIA has granted the REACH-3MC Round I project a no-cost extension to complete the project before Sept. 30, 2013.

Prior to the extension, the federal funds originally committed to the project would have expired on Dec. 31. The no-cost extension means that Merit can continue to use the federal funding committed to REACH-3MC to finish the Round I project. No new federal funding will be expended on the project.

“Our plan is to have all remaining construction finished no later than January 31,” said Karen Smith, CFO and REACH-3MC project co-manager for Merit. “When these last components have been completed, Merit will begin its NITA grant closeout work and complete a review of the infrastructure installed, which will be finalized no later than June 2013.”

“The remaining construction items to be completed in the coming weeks include the pulling of approximately 30 miles of fiber-optic cable through infrastructure that is already installed, connecting the 4 remaining CAIs, and finishing fiber splicing, ‘lighting,’ and continuity testing on various short segments throughout the build,” said Bob Stovall, vice president of network operations and engineering and REACH-3MC project co-manager for Merit.

“Merit has made a commitment to many Members to deliver new and improved service in the New Year,” said Elwood Downing, vice president of member relations, communications, services and product development for Merit. “Merit welcomes the NTIA extension because it will provide significant assistance toward that goal, but we will not let our foot off of the throttle. Our team continues to work diligently to ensure that the remaining Members are spliced into the mainline network and are provisioned and turned up for new service as soon as possible.”

Providing additional time for the completion of the grant will allow Merit to fully deliver the benefits promised under the award, which include connecting CAIs to Merit’s statewide research and education network, creating an open access, advanced technological footprint for Michigan to leverage, and increasing broadband access for CAIs, homes and businesses in rural and underserved areas.

The extension will also ensure that the REACH-3MC network extension will operate as a “middle mile” network, meaning that other area projects similar to REACH-3MC also federally funded through BTOP and its sister program, the Broadband Initiatives Program, can connect to REACH-3MC, maximizing taxpayer investment in broadband infrastructure in the Midwest.

In 1966, Michigan’s public universities created Merit as a shared resource to help meet their common need for networking assistance. Merit provides high-performance networking solutions to Michigan’s public universities, colleges, K-12 organizations, libraries, state government, healthcare, and other non-profit organizations.

The Rural, Education, Anchor, Community and Heathcare – Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative (REACH-3MC) project will build 2,287 miles of open-access, advanced fiber-optic network through rural and underserved communities across Michigan’s Lower and Upper Peninsulas. The network will also provide backhaul to key connection points in Wisconsin and Minnesota. REACH-3MC will connect 105 community anchor institutions as the network is built and will pass 900 more over time.

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