Broadband coming to Cass

Published 10:37 pm Thursday, March 8, 2012

Jason Russell of nonprofit Merit Network explains the stimulus-funded broadband fiber network connecting Cass County this summer to government officials at SMC. At right is his associate, Debbie DeSousa.

Broadband’s summer arrival in Cass County is likened to construction of a virtual 200-lane highway.
“This is a monumental time for us to provide a much-needed resource for the rural areas,” according to Jason Russell of Merit Network. “We’re building the infrastructure to build on top of in the future. We could not pass up this opportunity to help rural areas, which should not feel at a disadvantage because you choose not to live in Lansing, Detroit or Ann Arbor. Folks should live where they want, run businesses and go to school with the same opportunities as anyone in a very populated area. This will bring more of the world to Dowagiac. At the same time, high speed helps push local events and content out to the rest of the world.
“By being able to build out this network and own fiber as opposed to leasing circuits from AT&T and other providers,” Russell said, “we’ve been able to greatly reduce our operating expenses over the next several years.”
As a nonprofit, “We make friends, not money,” Russell said. “Our federally funded grant paid for some of the costs to build into the county and to provide some of the equipment to connect the county and to have Merit own, manage and maintain equipment at the county.
“It means internet service should cost you less and you can do more for your community with that money than pay for internet access. We pass along as much savings as we can to organizations which want to connect to us. It will, over time, spread out and become a web, to use a cliched internet term.”
Officials from the Edwardsburg area attending the annual countywide Intergovernmental Forum at Southwestern Michigan College’s Mathews Conference Center Thursday evening wondered where that left them besides 12 miles from the network backbone.
“Areas like that can be a little difficult,” Russell said. “We had to pick a path that would serve the most area” through Cassopolis to Dowagiac “but couldn’t serve everyone. It costs $30,000 to $50,000 per mile to build fiber, so over 10 miles is a pretty hefty expense to get connected.”
Cass County is part of the Southern Corridor, 175 fiber miles between Berrien Springs to Monroe via Hillsdale.
This summer 30 construction crews around Michigan are building fiber-optic infrastructure for Merit Network’s REACH-3MC project, funded through federal stimulus grants and private investment.


REACH-3MC stands for Rural, Education, Anchor, Community and Health care — Michigan Middle Mile Collaborative. Community anchor institutions include education, libraries, health care, government and public safety.
In 2010, Merit, which has been around since 1966, was awarded federal stimulus funding for two broadband projects. That January, it was a $33.3 million, 80 percent grant from ARRA, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for 1,017 miles with 72 fiber strands in the Lower Peninsula.
Seven months later Merit was awarded $69.6 million, 80 percent grant to build 1,270 miles of fiber-optic infrastructure with up to 168 fiber strands in the northern Lower Peninsula and Upper Peninsula.
Both grants came through a program funded by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA).
Projects must be completed by Dec. 31 and July 2013, respectively.
Merit brought along 10 for-profit “sub-recipients” to serve residential and for-profit business users between the two grants. They in turn work with small internet service providers (ISPs).
“Eighty percent of their ongoing costs are transmitting end-user data back to someplace that can get it on the rest of the internet. Reducing their costs significantly allows them to provide more services, better services, faster services and branch out further into rural areas. It help create competition so prices come down, spurring new start-ups or service additions, like television or telephone service over internet connections. Local providers will be better positioned to reinvest in the communities they try to serve.”
“If you’re tearing up roads and have the ability, lay conduit, so fiber can be pulled through pipes in the future,” Russell said. “One question we always get at these meetings is, the fiber is going on poles in front of my house. Can I connect? No, because splicing without aggregation points would fragment it to the point where it wouldn’t be useful. But Frontier would be able to help push out service. This fiber creates future opportunities.”