New equipment expands Ironwood internet access
April 30, 2020
By RICHARD JENKINS
Ironwood - There's now another option for internet in the Ironwood area as Northern Michigan University installed equipment for its Educational Access Network on the Luther L. Wright K-12 School last week.
Ironwood Superintendent Travis Powell said the district had been discussing installing the equipment for the last couple years, but sped up the finalization of the process as the district works to expand internet access for students and staff as they work to complete the school year remotely due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Although geared toward providing educational resources, internet service through the EAN is available to anyone within range of the equipment's signal.
"We offer this for really anybody who needs broadband service," said Eric Smith, NMU's director of broadcast and audio-visual services. "They can subscribe to the network as long as their physical location puts them in line to get service from our transmitters."
Smith, who helps run the EAN, said the network has its roots in NMU's effort in 2009 to expand broadband access for students in the Marquette area.
"As the network became available and students were using it, the word spread and we had communities around the Upper Peninsula who said, 'We're challenged to have affordable broadband that our students can use, is there anything NMU can do to help,'" Smith said.
The school wound up contacting the Federal Communications Commission about licenses for serving the rest of the Upper Peninsula, which Smith said it received in 2016.
The school partnered with the state of Michigan in 2017, according to Smith, and received a Michigan Economic Development Corporation loan to begin building out the network across the region.
"For the last couple of years that's what we've been doing, building in communities where broadband is either unavailable or access is not universal," Smith said.
The network is distinct from the statewide Merit Network, but Smith said the EAN does sometimes use Merit's infrastructure to get internet to its tower sites.
Information on the network's website shows, in addition to Ironwood, the network offers service in various locations throughout Gogebic and Ontonagon counties - including Watersmeet, Bergland, Ontonagon, White Pine, Rockland, Ewen and Bruce Crossing.
The range of service around a tower site can reach up to 9 miles from the equipment, according to Smith, but can be limited by a tower's location and the terrain between the user and the tower.
"At the end of the day, it's a line-of-sight service and terrain does play a role," Smith said. "Trees, foliage, that kind of thing can impact how far that signal will travel."
The network offers several payment tiers, with different prices for community members, veterans and NMU alumni, and students and other educational affiliates.
"Our idea is that we want to make broadband affordable -primarily to learners, but in general, to anybody who doesn't have internet and who needs it," Smith said.
Along with a reduced price, Smith said the educational tier also offers additional protection for young students as it's filtered to the same standard as the internet found in many schools.
"We had heard from a number of families who said, 'The reason we don't have internet in our house is not because we can't get it, but because we're, frankly, afraid of some of the bad things that are on the internet. We don't want that coming into our house with young kids,'" Smith said.
Smith said residents can call the network's office and find out the likelihood that a specific address will be able to receive service.
Ultimately, the network hopes to expand across the entire UP, as Smith said those without broadband access can face real challenges to succeed in education and business.
"We want to reduce the number of haves and have-nots, we want everybody to be in the have column so that everybody has an equal chance of succeeding in an era where if you don't have broadband you're at a significant disadvantage," he said.
Those interested in the network can visit nmu.edu/ean.