Northern Michigan University seeks a cross-U.P. network

Kim Kozlowski
The Detroit News

Marquette — Northern Michigan University, a pioneer in connecting all of its students to technology, is working to expand its private educational network across the Upper Peninsula.

Northern is seeking permission from the Federal Communications Commission to expand its service area so it can provide Internet access for educational purposes to community colleges, Indian reservations and schools in rural communities throughout the sparsely populated U.P. The 8,600-student university already provides Internet access on campus and up to 30 miles away.

If approved, NMU’s ambitious effort would make it the largest independently built-out network in the United States, according to the National Educational Broadband Service Association. The school plans to do it alone, without corporate support. It is not intended for the general public.

NMU President Fritz Erickson said the move is critical to U.P. residents, especially those who face barriers to educational access because they live outside the region’s few urban centers.

“Can you imagine if you were taking a class and needed to get on the Internet and can’t? You become very restricted in terms of your educational opportunities,” Erickson said. “If we really want to impact educational opportunities, what we can do is provide that — whether it’s our courses, or Bay College’s courses ... that is good for all of us up here.”

After FCC approval, which could come by year’s end, the roll-out could happen quickly, since it would require only the placement of more wireless towers, which take about a day to install, said David Maki, NMU chief technology officer.

It’s unclear how much the expanded access will cost. It will depend on the interest from surrounding communities and the number of towers installed. Each can provide access extending up to eight miles. Each tower comes with a $50,000 price tag, a $5,000 annual maintenance fee and an administrative charge to be determined.

But Maki said the university has letters of support from nearly a dozen interested parties, including public schools, community colleges and Native American communities. The interested communities would pay to be part of the network.

Broader Internet access for education would help students such as Amenda Johnson. For two years, she has arrived on the campus of Bay College in Escanaba two hours before her classes start and stayed for three hours afterward — just to get her school work done because she didn’t have Internet access at home.

The mother of three young children, Johnson, 24, has lived in two rural communities in the Upper Peninsula, and getting Internet access at home has been a major struggle as she pursues an education degree.

“It’s hard to stay away from your family when you need to get your school work done,” said Johnson, who lives in Nadeau, about 20 minutes away from Bay College, a community college.

Though she just got her own online connection at home this month, if Bay College joined Northern’s network, Johnson would be able to log into the university’s system from home. She added that expanding educational access to the Internet would make it more convenient to others who are still in her situation.

“You could get your homework done and not have to worry about being on campus more hours than you are supposed to be there,” she said.

Access to the Internet is essential to learning, especially in a college environment. Students need to be able to access the Internet for research, online classes, cloud-based assignments — and compete in a global economy.

But the UP’s scattered population doesn’t make it easy. Across the Mackinac Bridge, there are 311,361 residents living within 16,452 square miles — approximately the size of New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Connecticut combined.

About 30 percent of the UP’s 125,587 households lack a high-speed internet connection, said Eric Frederick, vice president for community affairs at Connect Michigan, which is working in partnership with Michigan Public Service Commission to ensure connection to broadband..

“Broadband is the critical infrastructure of the 21st century,” Frederick said. “ Without it, there are going to be students, residents and businesses that can’t compete in the global economy.”

Northern is among the state’s smallest public universities with 8,600 students, including 5,000 who live off campus. But it is the largest university in the U.P.

It recognized the importance of technology in education in 2000, and began giving laptop computers to every student, said Eric Smith, director of the university’s broadcast and audio visual services. The cost is built into a student’s tuition. A policy recently was unveiled that will allow students to keep the laptop computers if they graduate in four years.

In 2009, the FCC granted the university a license for educational broadband spectrum to operate a wireless network over a wide area.

Eleven towers were installed around the region of Marquette, where the university is located, giving Internet access to NMU students not only in Marquette and Marquette Township, but also the communities of Negaunee, Ishpeming, Gwinn, Sawyer, Chocolay and Powell townships — with a range of five to 30 miles away.

The core of the network is used to host tower sites in Hancock, Mich., also in the UP, and the University of Dartmouth.

“Technology is a critical component in teaching and learning,” Smith said. “Our mission is to be able to get students the training that is required by businesses.”

President Barack Obama visited Northern in 2011. During his visit, Obama pointed to railroads, electrical lines and highways as examples of infrastructures that transformed the nation, and how Northern’s wireless network was accomplishing similar goals.

“Today, this is one of America’s most connected universities,” Obama said at the time. “And you’ve created new online learning opportunities for K-12 students as far as 30 miles away, some of whom can’t always make it to school in a place that averages 200 inches of snow a year. Now, I’m sure some of the students don’t exactly see the end of snow days as an opportunity. But it’s good for their education, and it’s good for our economy.”

If Northern moves ahead with its plans, state and UP officials laud it as an enormous step for education, quality of life and the economy in the UP.

“Imagine life without Internet access,” Patrick Gossman, chair emeritus of the National Educational Broadband Service Association and deputy chief information officer at Wayne State University. “Access in this day and age is extremely important.”

KKozlowski@detroitnews.com