IRONWOOD TOWNSHIP- Merit Network Inc. and community partners in Gogebic County commemorated the completion and lighting of the fiber optic network's segment between Watersmeet and Ironwood on Tuesday.
In 2010, Merit received two federal stimulus awards for the Rural, Education, Anchor, Community and Health Care-Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative to create more than 2,200 miles of open access advanced fiber optic infrastructure in rural and underserved areas in Michigan. This has been accomplished in three years, Elwood Downing, vice president of member relations, communications, services and product development for Merit, said. The Gogebic County segment will provide access to key connection points in Wisconsin and Minnesota.
Downing said $100 million federal and $30 million private investment have been put into the project. "The public/private partnership of this project is the most compelling aspect, and was the most compelling aspect to the federal government as well."
The project was recognized by the White House in 2012 as a "Champion of Change," and 2013 Computer World Foundation "Computer World Honors Laureate."
"It's a tremendous success, and it would not have been possible without many people and organizations," Downing said. The project will serve homes, businesses and community anchor institutions.
Merit has long had a vision of equal informational access for all, regardless of geography," Downing said.
One hundred and thirty-three community anchor institutions are involved, and 53 additional institutions will be connected.
Gogebic Community College President James Lorenson called REACH-3MC "a truly momentous project. We're very pleased and honored to be part of the project."
Walt Lessun, GCC librarian, said the college is just beginning to imagine what collaborations can be created, and the positive effects for students will include faster access to proprietary databases and cooperative interaction with classmates and others around the world.
Tom Ruppe, network support analyst for Gogebic Community Mental Health, said REACH-3MC has enabled GCMH to provide telepsychiatry for its consumers, who previously had to wait five to six weeks to see a psychiatrist on location. Consumers have also been able to videoconference with relatives down state. Staff at GCMH will save travel dollars by attending meetings via video, and GCMH will have lower cost, reliable, high speed access to critical applications, Ruppe said, including medical records stored down state, financial applications in Marquette, and regional applications.
"It used to take me three days to complete Windows updates," Ruppe said. "Now I can do it in an hour."
Juliane Giackino, Gogebic County Administrator, said staff at the courthouse run 60 types of software applications, with eight servers, and 100 work stations; so the increased bandwidth will be beneficial. Giackino also said travel costs will be lower for the county, with defendants from the lower peninsula now able to appear in court by video, and Gogebic County board members able to utilize the same technology for meetings.
Law enforcement also uses cloud-based data storage, Giackino said. "It wasn't an easy decision to migrate to Merit, but the bandwidth, cost and reliability are worth it."
"Imagine a world with no boundaries and no barriers," Ironwood Carnegie Library Director Elaine Erickson said, "with data at the speed of light. That world is now, thanks to Merit."
"Merit has given us the tools to ensure 21st century service for our patrons," Erickson said. "I felt as if I had won the lottery when I found out the library would be a hub for the project. ... It is limitless now what we can provide our residents."
Amy Berglund, Upper Peninsula regional representative for the office of U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, said Levin was a huge proponent of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, from which the federal funding for the project came. "It's really terrific to hear the examples of how this technology is impacting this community."
"It's only going to get better," Berglund said. "Sen. Levin will be so happy to hear what it's doing here and how this investment is really working."
Thom Hadfield, U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek's office staffer, said, "I specialize in technology issues, and get the daily calls from people in rural areas that don't have access to high speed internet. We are much closer to providing the last mile to businesses and homes." Hadfield presented Downing a certificate of appreciation from Benishek's office.