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Merit Extends the Reach of its Network by 2,300 Miles Using CommScope Fiber Solutions

By Katherine Johnson

After receiving $128 million in federal funding to revitalize broadband Internet access across rural Michigan, Merit Network, Inc., needed the right fiber and materials partner. Some RFP finalists were too large to provide the custom, hands-on approach Merit needed. Others, while smaller and more agile, couldn't deliver on the magnitude of its vision for the REACH-3MC initiative.

Headquartered in Ann Arbor since 1966, Merit owns and operates America's longest running research and education network. Governed by Michigan's major public universities, Merit's network backbone is a strategic collaboration and innovation asset. It connects universities, K-12 schools, libraries, health care, government institutions and other nonprofits across the state.

Injecting true broadband Internet

In remote rural areas of Michigan, a lack of backhaul infrastructure was severely limiting the availability and performance of affordable Internet service. Community institutions, businesses and homes were left with Internet speeds far below their needs.

Merit Network stepped in to solve the problem with the Rural, Education, Anchor, Community and Healthcare-Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative (REACH-3MC) initiative.

When the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act of 2009 (ARRA) was signed into law, Merit saw the nearly $7.2 billion in available federal funding as an opportunity to address broadband shortfalls throughout Michigan. The 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization could finally realize its nearly 50-year dream of spreading state-of-the-art broadband services across thousands of acres of rural Michigan.

Navigating complex, competing factors

A variety of complex factors placed critical importance on selecting the most cost-effective, flexible, responsive fiber-optic partner. These factors included:
  • Funding and timing limits:The federal grant agency National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) stipulated a strict three-year completion timeframe-on time and under budget. Compliance required a comprehensive environmental assessment that resulted in an overhaul of the engineering route. To protect the project from volatile raw materials costs that could increase prices, Merit needed to secure a fixed rate for materials purchases.

  • Merit's nonprofit status:As a nonprofit, Merit does not directly serve residential and commercial customers. To make sure the "last mile" was taken care of, it enlisted the help of seven Internet Service Providers (ISPs). These ISPs were considered sub-recipients of ARRA funds. Each ISP owns fiber strands on the infrastructure.

  • Project complexity:Coordinating seven different ISP/sub-recipient organizations was a massive challenge. Beyond the 2,300-mile mainline, Merit and the ISPs required access points to construct laterals that connect end users. The project also featured construction of entrance facilities into Incumbent Local Exchange Carrier (ILEC) central offices, colocation in telecommunications huts, service to cellular towers, and more. Fiber counts ranged from 24 to 288-even 432 in some instances.

  • A high possibility of delays:Merit was concerned that the collective demand from ARRA projects would outpace supply, causing an unsustainable delay in the construction process. Also, the sheer magnitude and complexity of the project was a challenge in the face of a decentralized permitting process. Finally, two record-breaking Michigan winters threatened to slow construction.

CommScope delivers

REACH-3MC statistics Given all of these complicating factors, Merit placed tremendous importance on finding a cost-effective, flexible, responsive fiber-optic partner who could maintain high availability of various reel-sizes to ensure timely materials delivery.

During the evaluation process, the Merit team visited CommScope's international headquarters in North Carolina. They left impressed and convinced by the company's size and scalability. But the most compelling differentiator was delivery method.
CommScope delivered fiber directly to the job site in specialized semi-trucks equipped with dedicated cranes, then offloaded the materials at no additional charge. Delivery charges from other vendors would have cost Merit an additional $1 million.

Mike Fleming, CommScope's Central Region Sales Director, explained, "We are the only
network infrastructure provider in the world with a cable transport fleet capable of not only delivering cable reels to a site, but also unloading them via our cargo-master lift-gate service. Merit definitely appreciated this convenience."

Prior experience and a diverse range of solutions ultimately convinced Merit that CommScope truly understood complex broadband deployments.

"CommScope was excellent to work with in finalizing the purchasing agreement," said Bob Stovall, Vice President of Network Operations and Engineering, Merit Network. "Together, we secured a win-win contract that locked in purchases at a consistent rate for the entire project, protecting us from rising raw materials costs."

CommScope provides flexible TeraSPEED® and OFNR fiber solutions
Merit purchased all project materials from CommScope. Based on network traffic distances, Merit selected SMFE 28 E+, dispersion-unshifted, singlemode fiber that met ITU G.652.D

Merit also selected OFNR cable for the central office entrance facility, including termination inside colocation facilities. The OFNR is riser-rated, enabling deployment directly from the mainline access point of the entrance lateral into the facility itself. OFNR can also be deployed through fire-stops, plenum walls, raised computer floors, and more. Ultimately, the solution's "go anywhere" quality translated to vital cost- and time-savings.

Merit completes REACH-3MC

Three years later, Merit had expanded its fiber backbone by 59 percent. Since REACH-3MC began on January 1, 2010, Merit's membership has grown by 41 percent, from 218 to 307. The project added dedicated 1 Gbps connectivity to 143 community institutions. While 271 current members enjoy dedicated connections to Merit's backbone, the initiative will eventually enable another 900 public institutions to connect. The project also added 12 new colocation facilities in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

This significant expansion of Merit's footprint also acts as a cost-cutting mechanism, providing better, cheaper service to more constituents in more areas. In fact, more than 1 million homes and 55,000 businesses will benefit as direct customers of a REACH-3MC ISP. ISPs can also access 51 central office facilities to leverage the infrastructure of existing ILECs for improved service.

1 Gbps is only the beginning

As a "middle-mile" project, the aim of REACH-3MC was not to directly connect every home and business in a certain service area, but to build backhaul into an entire region. Thanks to the success of REACH-3MC, both new and existing Merit members benefit from 21st century broadband in remote and rural areas.

Since the solutions provided by CommScope are capable of delivering speeds of 10, 40, even 100 Gbps-and network speed and capacity can be increased with simple upgrades- Merit is also now ready to take control of its broadband future. As Merit and sub-recipients add laterals to complete the last mile for end-users, businesses and community institutions, CommScope will remain a welcomed, vital network infrastructure provider.

Last Modified: 2014-08-07 10:46:31

Broadband Stimulus Project completed in Menominee

By ABC 10

Article reprinted from ABC 10 web site

An Upper Peninsula city celebrated the completion of new $130 million dollar project Wednesday.

Ann Arbor-based Merit completed new segments of its Broadband Stimulus Project in Menominee.

The project, Rural, Education, Anchor, Community and Healthcare - Merit's Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative (REACH-3MC), helps connect rural and underserved areas in Michigan with more than 2,200 miles of broadband infrastructure.

"When you look north of Mount Pleasant, there's no more public universities until you get to the U.P. and the infrastructure from Mount Pleasant north is terrible, so we needed this infrastructure," Merit's Vice President of Member Relations Elwood Downing said. "Also if you look there's no major interstates north of Flint-there's only I-75-so therefore building this infrastructure to provide service to the rest of the community is really important."

"So the analogy between the super information highway to the interstate system there's something to be said about that."

"It leverages technology, reduces cost," Menominee County Sheriff Kenny Marks said. "It will allow our county-not only in terms of government, schools-to reach out throughout the U.P. , but also out of the U.P. and in other areas where there's services and support that will make our area that much more connected to the outside world."

The new broadband allows Menominee, and other U.P. cities, to connect to broadband services at a lower cost and consolidates services.

"The community can now begin doing things regionally and share resources and build out the economic development here," Downing said. "It then expands them broader to be able to share services with other counties throughout the state. And a lot of counties are doing that, they really are."

"We're going to have improved productivity, efficiency at a lower cost. And that's good when it comes to government, because the tax payers are paying the bill and if we can make that bill smaller then we're doing our jobs right," Marks said.

Last Modified: 2013-11-21 12:48:09

Merit-orious Beginning

By Katie Perttunen, Your Daily Globe

Article reprinted from

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.

Last Modified: 2013-11-20 12:40:08

REACH-3MC Project Update Archive

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Map of the Lower and Upper Peninsulas showing the Merit fiber and the REACH-3MC fiber progress
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