Michigan’s MERIT Network: Connectivity To and Through Community Anchors

Benton Institute for Broadband & Society

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Digital Beat

Michigan’s MERIT Network:
Connectivity To and Through Community Anchors

Investment in high-performance broadband infrastructure for community anchor institutions can deliver unforeseen dividends for years to come. Take, for example, the Merit Network, which operates almost 4,000 miles of fiber-optic infrastructure in Michigan.

Jon Sallet

A nonprofit, member-owned organization governed by Michigan’s public universities, Merit is America’s longest running regional research and education network – founded in 1966. Merit’s management and network expertise goes back all the way to the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNet), which spawned the modern internet.

After more than fifty years of innovation, Merit continues to serve higher education, K-12, library, government, health-care and public-sector members. Its work goes beyond connectivity to include security and community services. These have included assistance and information intended to help member organizations with technologies, policies, and practices.

To extend critical broadband service to all community anchor institutions in Michigan, including in rural and underserved communities, Merit used two grants from the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP) to create the REACH -3MC (Rural, Education, Anchor, Community and Health Care—Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative) project. Completed in 2014, the project constructed 2,287 miles of the almost 4,000-mile, open-access, fiber infrastructure network.

Bob Stovall, vice president of network operations and engineering for Merit, said, “This project is a foundation for Michigan, much like the interstate highway system. [But] more work is needed to truly reach every community in Michigan.” Although the REACH -3MC grant included sub-recipients from the private sector to make broadband readily available to households and businesses that lack adequate service, “more laterals are needed to connect more communities to the REACH -3MC infrastructure,” said Stovall.

Merit backbone mapSince 2015, the cost of broadband in Michigan has decreased and more competition has been introduced, making services more affordable and accessible.

After completing connections to most Michigan anchor institutions, Merit realized it needed to play a role and facilitate taking bandwidth to where students live because:

  • 368,000 homes in rural Michigan do not have access to broadband;
  • 27 percent of K-12 students do not have access to broadband in their homes; and
  • Current data overestimate availability and connectivity. At the FCC-defined threshold of 25Mb/3Mb, the reported 92.26 percent coverage of Michigan is unlikely to be accurate.

Merit is in a unique position. With its deep expertise in advanced networking and more than 700 connections to Michigan’s community anchor institutions, Merit has begun to catalyze broadband access to unserved communities. The organization does not plan to offer broadband services to consumers directly, but it seeks to ensure that its middle-mile connections are available. Merit is agnostic about how communities connect and with whom they partner—whether through municipally-owned systems, electric cooperatives, or small rural ISPs.

Merit, Michigan State University’s Quello Center, and mLab started The Michigan Moonshot: Expanding Community Networks in Rural Michigan, a broadband-data-measurement project, in response to the 2018 Michigan Broadband Roadmap plan.

To get a better picture of the speed and quality of home broadband internet connections in three different pilot communities (representing more than 6,000 students), the project begins with developing measurements to understand the gaps in internet access. K-12 students will act as “citizen scientists” to measure broadband performance in their homes and gather information to supplement FCC data. This effort will also help get community stakeholders involved and invested in outcomes.

With an accurate picture of Michigan’s connectivity and where tech needs to go, barriers to broadband-network deployment in rural communities will be reduced and investments optimized. Merit will provide assistance and:

  • Help foster public-private partnership “community connectivity teams” to provide expertise in a variety of areas,
  • Leverage their expertise in federal, state, and nonprofit funding for planning grants or one-time construction subsidies,
  • Develop a comprehensive partner ecosystem and solutions framework, including educational programs for communities, and
  • Launch Michigan’s first broadband summit conference to advance conversation and collaboration.

These are all viable steps to reach beyond Merit’s community anchor institution network to address the lack of home connectivity in Michigan.

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Download a special Benton Report by Jonathan Sallet

Jonathan Sallet is a Benton Senior Fellow. He works to promote broadband access and deployment, to advance competition, including through antitrust, and to preserve and protect internet openness. He is the former-Federal Communications Commission General Counsel (2013-2016), and Deputy Assistant Attorney General for Litigation, Antitrust Division, US Department of Justice (2016-2017). 

The Benton Institute for Broadband & Society is a non-profit organization dedicated to ensuring that all people in the U.S. have access to competitive, High-Performance Broadband regardless of where they live or who they are. We believe communication policy - rooted in the values of access, equity, and diversity - has the power to deliver new opportunities and strengthen communities.

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Benton Institute
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