MONROE — Merit Network Inc. last week announced the first completed segment of its  REACH-3MC Broadband Stimulus Project.

The announcement came at a fiber-optic infrastructure dedication ceremony for Monroe County held at Monroe County Community College.

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Merit Network has successfully completed and lit the portion of REACH-3MC that will service the Monroe Community. The segment includes a lateral connection to Monroe County Community College. Laterals will also be completed soon to the Monroe County Library System branches, Mary Kay Daume Library and Ellis Library.

“This first build that covers Monroe is like the tip of an iceberg,” said Merit Network president and CEO Donald Welch. “There has been a tremendous amount of work that has gone on over the last three years to make this possible. REACH-3MC is just a foundation, and from this many great things will happen as many bright people gain access to this infrastructure and take advantage of this opportunity.”

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.

REACH-3MC is funded by two grants from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, better known as the federal stimulus.

Joining Merit at the dedication were: David Nixon, president, Monroe County Community College; Donald Spencer, superintendent, Monroe County Intermediate School District;  Nancy Bellaire, interim director, Monroe County Library System; Mark Cochran, field representative for Rep. John Dingell; 15th Congressional District of Michigan; Gale Govaere regional representative for Sen. Carl Levin; and Sen. Debbie Stabenow.

Stabenow compared the REACH-3MC Broadband Stimulus Project with two other historic infrastructure projects for its power to transform communities: the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862 and the Rural Electrification Act of 1936.

“This is the next generation of connection,” Stabenow said. “It’s not the telephone anymore at the end of the road, it’s the Internet. It’s the broadband connection for the small business at the end of the road, from one end of Michigan, and one end of our country, to the other. As we are competing in a global economy, it is just one more reason why we need to have this kind of partnership between the public sector and the private sector, educational institutions, libraries and everyone in the community. It’s a great day for Michigan and I am very pleased to be here.”

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REACH-3MC features robust public-private collaboration. Merit Network is working with over 140 community anchor institutions that will receive fiber-optic laterals like those in the Monroe Community. Merit also has engaged three providers from the commercial sector, who are Sub-recipients on REACH-3MC and will offer services to homes, businesses and local ISPs in the project service area. And none of the work could be possible without contributions from vendors and contractors in the private sector.

Nixon also recognized the historical significance of the fiber-optic dedication in Monroe, and equated fiber-optic infrastructure with access to higher education. He shared a personal story in which he noted that students who were observed participating in remote distance learning — like the type of learning made possible through Merit and the REACH-3MC project — had the same positive, measurable educational results as students observed in the classroom.

REACH-3MC will provide the scope and ability for Merit Network to operate a truly statewide education and research network for Michigan so that the entire state can better work together and collaborate. That is one aspect of the project that Michigan’s education system can leverage for the greater good.

“This will make a huge difference in the services we will be able to provide and collaborate together on,” the Monroe County ISD’s Spencer said. “This project is going to allow us to expand our ability to create partnerships throughout the state of Michigan. On a local level, it’s also going to allow us to do a lot of things we’ve wanted to do for a long time. It’s going to allow us to connect the ISD to the college and the library. Public-private collaboration is also important because we need our families to be connected to the Internet in the same way that we are, so they can take advantage of the educational opportunities that our teachers are providing them.”

REACH-3MC provides maximum benefit for the investment, targeting the institutions communities rely on like schools, libraries, social service organizations and local government, and delivering an investment that will help those community anchors evolve and grow in the 21st century.

“Fiber is about connection,” Bellaire said. “We all remember traditional library services: story times, book clubs and more. Today the library is all of that and more. It connects students with online financial aid and college applications and proctors tests for distance learning students. For job hunters we’re the connection to resume help and employment resources. For many individuals the library is the only connection to Internet available — free of charge. In this economy, that has meant so much to our community in recent years.”

REACH-3MC will also help Michigan keep-pace with the changing 21st century as it works hard to revitalize its economy.

EACH-3MC targets both education and economic development, providing Michigan with a platform to compete upon for decades to come.

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