NMU gets $6.5 mil for broadband expansion

NMU gets $6.5 mil for broadband expansion

Von Lanier

To move forward with expanding the Educational Access Network (EAN) across the entire Upper Peninsula, NMU was recently awarded an investment of $6.5 million from the Michigan Strategic Fund. The funds were approved last Tuesday to help NMU equip 64 cities and townships across the U.P. with wireless broadband over a two-year period.

The university will invest $3.2 million of its own, with an expectation of gradually paying back the funds through net proceeds over 15 years, Vice President of Finance and Administration Gavin Leach said. The funds will be provided on a reimbursement basis—so as dollars are expended to cover costs, NMU will receive a certain amount back.

“The money will be used to cover things like control units, antennas, base stations, fiber backhaul—some towers, but not many,” Leach said.

NMU earned its educational broadband licensing spectrum from the Federal Communications Commission at the end of September 2016.

The EAN is now available to regional community members looking to enroll in personal or professional development courses as well as educational partners. For educational partners, which include K-12 schools and local colleges or universities, the cost for full NMU LTE access is $19.95.

For lifelong learning community members taking online courses at NMU, the cost for maximum speed with no data cap is $34.95. Optional speed upgrades are also available for an additional $5 per month. Access for all requires a one-time purchase of an NMU LTE mobile hotspot, an indoor stationary receiver or a mountable indoor or outdoor receiver.

Leach said NMU doesn’t try to compete with local internet service providers like Charter Spectrum or AT&T because there is more of educational focus that comes with the university’s broadband.

Many households across the U.P. and other rural areas lack access to broadband or the minimal speeds required to use internet for educational purposes, creating a digital divide between them and the rest of the country. In his testimony to the Michigan Strategic Fund in Lansing last Tuesday, Leach shared a story of a U.P. woman who he claimed expressed gratitude to Northern, saying EAN “changed her life.”

The woman had to routinely drive her daughter to a fast food restaurant in town that offered free WiFi and linger there for hours in order to complete homework, he said. With access to EAN, the woman and her daughter are now able to enjoy the convenience of high-speed Internet from their home.

Derek Hall, assistant vice president of identity, branding and university marketing said right now there is no other college attempting to provide educational access to broadband like NMU.

“The [benefit] I think is the most exciting for me is the connections that we have with school districts across the U.P.,” Hall said. “We’re going into these small towns. We’re talking to the superintendents and saying, ‘We can provide pretty good LTE coverage for your students. Is that a value to you?’ And so far everyone has said, ‘Yes. We need something like that.’”

“In that relationship, we can provide the school with upgrades to their wireless system,” Hall continued. “We can work with the cities. In high school classes, we can have dual enrollment where a student is taking our classes at their school.”

Hall explained that through this educational relationship, there remains potential long-term enrollment benefits for NMU. By taking college courses in high school, students are creating a sense of familiarity with the university and have a higher chance of making NMU their postsecondary school of choice.

“So there’s kind of that flow,” he said. “It’s part of our mission as a regional and state institution to provide educational opportunities and EAN is a way to really do that. So really we’re looking at about 60 to 70 installations across the U.P.”

While NMU cannot cover every square inch of the U.P., Hall said the plan is to expand based on population and infrastructure.

Escanaba, Houghton and Bad River, Wisconsin are among the places that currently have EAN service. Hall said NMU is currently developing EAN in places like Watersmeet and Chatham.

The Michigan Strategic Fund is administered by the Michigan Economic Development Corporation. For more information about the Educational Access initiative, visit
www.nmu.edu/ean.