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Merit Network Nearly Finished With $100M Fiber Optic Expansion

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The REACH-3MC buildout as of July 31, 2013. Merit Network graphic.

The REACH-3MC buildout as of July 31, 2013. Merit Network graphic.

ANN ARBOR (WWJ) — Merit Network Inc. Wednesday announced milestones for its REACH-3MC Round II fiber-optic construction project.

“Building over 1,000 miles of fiber-optic infrastructure, connecting over 85 community anchor institutions, while following federal rules and regulations without changing the scope or budget in three years, is an accomplishment that we are very proud of,” said Don Welch, president & CEO, Merit Network.

Added Bob Stovall, Merit’s vice president of network operations and engineering: “The achievements of the REACH-3MC Round II project to date have been a tremendous effort, not only on Merit’s part, but from our community, construction contractors and our project participants. Merit and our team will continue to work hard to finish the few remaining items to ensure the successful completion of the Round II project.”

REACH-3MC Round II began in August 2010 when Merit received grant funding to construct 1,270 miles of fiber-optic infrastructure across 29 counties in Michigan’s Northern Lower and Upper Peninsula with additional paths to key interconnection points in Wisconsin and Minnesota.

Today, 98 percent of all underground conduit, aerial strand and infrastructure have been deployed along the route, with 90 percent of all fiber installed. Splicing is nearly complete on all Round II Lower Peninsula fiber and continues on segments in the Upper Peninsula.

Led by Merit Network, the goal of REACH-3MC Round II is to construct “middle-mile” 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.

REACH-3MC Round II will connect a total of 88 community anchor institutions as part of the project. Each CAI lateral has a capacity of 1 Gbps (gigabit per second).

Merit has completed connections to all REACH-3MC Round II community anchor institutions in the Lower Peninsula and is working with a few remaining organizations to provision them service. In the Upper Peninsula, Merit has completed construction on all but six CAI laterals and continues to provision service to its member CAIs.

“When construction is complete, Merit’s network will have over 3,800 miles of contiguous, high-capacity fiber to meet the needs of our member community in Michigan,” said Elwood Downing, vice president of member engagement and outreach for Merit Network. “From the Lake Michigan shoreline to the banks of Lake Huron, from the Upper Peninsula to the Lower Peninsula, our members have seen an immediate improvement in their ability to share services, expertise and programs without any capacity constraints that existed before the project.”

The REACH-3MC Round II infrastructure already has had a positive impact for Merit members at Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District (EUP ISD) and Cheboygan-Otsego-Presque Isle Educational Service District (COP ESD).

Jason Kronemeyer, technology director at EUP ISD, and Jamie Huber, supervisor of learning services and technology at COP ESD, continue working with Merit to improve the services their respective organizations provide their students.

“Merit was here providing connectivity to EUP ISD before others were even looking to provide service in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula,” Kronemeyer said. “This project is already having a significant impact on our schools and their students. We are constantly being asked to do more with less, and the fiber provided by the REACH-3MC Round II project will allow us to do just that.”

Added Huber: “COP ESD is benefiting greatly from the REACH-3MC project. This is as significant to our schools and the state as the building of the Mackinaw Bridge was in its time. Not only will this fiber allow our schools to do more for their students, we are also in the process of implementing a strategy to share services with our counterparts to the north, EUP ISD. Prior to the REACH-3MC project that would not have been possible.”

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration has issued the REACH-3MC Round II project a no-cost extension.

The NTIA oversees and administers the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, part of the federal stimulus. REACH-3MC Round II is funded in part by a BTOP grant. With the award of BTOP grant funding, the NTIA set a specific award period for REACH-3MC Round II project completion ending on July 31.

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

“The NTIA is very cognizant of the delays we experienced implementing the project that were out of our control,” said Karen Smith, CFO and vice president of finance and administration at Merit Network. “The agency has remained supportive of REACH-3MC Round II and that support, along with the project extension, is indicative of its trust in our ability to fulfill the purpose of the grant. Like Merit, the NTIA believes in the positive impact REACH-3MC Round II will have on Michigan.”

Added Welch: “The NTIA’s decision to issue our project a no-cost extension shows that the agency acknowledges the unique challenges and complexities Merit has faced implementing our Round II grant. Constructing fiber-optic cable in the Upper Peninsula has posed unforeseen challenges that have delayed our progress. The project has encountered significantly more bedrock than planned for which requires extensive drilling and has slowed our construction crews, who were already delayed by an exceptionally long Michigan winter that saw snowfall continue into the month of May.”

In 2010, Merit Network received two federal stimulus awards totaling $102 million for REACH-3MC. The Rural, Education, Anchor, Community and Health care – Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative (REACH-3MC) will create 2,287 miles of fiber-optic infrastructure in rural and underserved areas throughout Michigan and provide backhaul to key interconnection points in Wisconsin and Minnesota. More at http://www.merit.edu/meritformichigan.

Merit Network, a nonprofit corporation owned and governed by Michigan’s public universities, owns and operates America’s longest-running regional research and education network. In 1966, Michigan’s public universities created Merit as a shared resource to help meet their common need for networking assistance. Today, it provides high-performance networking to Michigan’s public universities, colleges, K-12 organizations, libraries, state government, healthcare, and other non-profit organizations.

For more information, visit http://www.merit.edu.

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