Northern Michigan University will receive a $6.5 million Investment Fund Award from the Michigan Strategic Fund to accelerate its effort to extend high-speed educational broadband throughout the Upper Peninsula. The funds will be used to build out and equip 64 cities and townships over a two-year period.
NMU will contribute $3.2 million in matching funds to the project. As it recovers its expansion costs through subscriptions to its Educational Access Network (EAN), the university will return a percentage of net proceeds back to the Michigan Strategic Fund to gradually repay the investment.
"This award enables Northern to build the network much more quickly because the funds are available up front to purchase the equipment needed for the large number of sites," said Gavin Leach, NMU vice president for finance and administration. "Our partnerships with cities and townships across the U.P. have allowed us to place equipment on their water towers and other high structures. It's a great example of universities and communities working collaboratively for the benefit of creating an educated citizenry through access to broadband. But in areas where high structures don’t already exist, we’ll have to build them, which adds to the cost. The right equipment in the right place is a critical aspect to building a strong, reliable network."
Northern has established a tradition of bridging the digital divide, from the establishment of its university-wide notebook computer program in 2000 to the announcement of its Educational Access Network last fall. In the Upper Peninsula and beyond, many rural households continue to either lack broadband entirely or the minimal speeds required for educational use. Northern’s EAN merges the broadband coverage and speed of the university’s revolutionary LTE system with a growing array of courses for professional and personal development. Leach said the goal is to have more than 50 course offerings in two years. NMU is also working with the region’s K-12 school districts and colleges to deliver broadband to students and their families.
EAN access is included in tuition for students in NMU’s associate, bachelor’s and master’s degree programs. Community members who take personal and professional development courses pay $34.95 per month for full access to the campus network, with no data caps or reduced speeds. K-12, college and university partners get full access to NMU LTE at school and home for $19.95 per month, with an optional speed upgrade for an additional $5 per month. Access for all requires a one-time purchase of an NMU LTE mobile hot spot, an indoor stationary receiver or a mountable indoor/outdoor receiver.
Municipalities in Marquette County, along with Houghton, currently have access. Escanaba is scheduled to be operational within a week. Leach said NMU has also reached or is finalizing agreements with Watersmeet, Crystal Falls, Forest Park, Chatham and Eben.
In a presentation to the Michigan Strategic Fund in Lansing on Tuesday, Leach shared the story of a woman who expressed enthusiastic gratitude to Northern, saying its Educational Access Network “changed her life.” She routinely had to drive her daughter to a fast-food restaurant in town with wi-fi and linger there for hours in order to complete homework. With EAN access, she and her daughter now enjoy the convenience of high-speed Internet in their home.
"Northern's Educational Access Network and building the NMU LTE across the Upper Peninsula over the next two years can be the national model for providing one of the most critical learning tools of the 21st Century to students—Internet access—to rural America. Michigan and the U.P. can lead the way,” said NMU President Fritz Erickson. "This financial support moves us closer to two goals: putting high-speed educational broadband at the fingertips of every student in the Upper Peninsula, from pre-school to lifelong learner; and helping the region develop the most highly educated rural workforce in America.
“Thank you to Governor Snyder, MEDC Director Steve Arwood, David Behen and Eric Swanson of Michigan's Department of Technology, Management and Budget, and many state legislators and policymakers, especially our U.P. legislators, for having the vision to see what is possible as a result of Northern's EAN project and a U.P. broadband super highway for learning."
The Michigan Strategic Fund is administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. For more information on NMU’s Educational Access Initiative, visit nmu.edu/EAN.