Merit provides dial-in access for “the rest of Michigan”
ANN ARBOR—How do you bring the Internet to an area that is so sparsely populated and geographically remote that no Internet service provider would set up shop there? Or where limited budgets make it impossible to bring in a high-speed Internet connection? Or where the peculiarities of the state?s phone map spread an organization?s users over five local calling areas?
These questions, which have dogged school and library administrations in rural areas of Michigan for years, were given unprecedented attention during a recently completed dial-in project for K-12 schools, community colleges and public libraries.
The undertaking was a project of Merit Network, Inc., a non-profit organization owned by 11 of Michigan?s publicly supported universities, including the University of Michigan. Merit provides direct and dial-in Internet connectivity and other networking services. With a $4 million grant from the Michigan Public Service Commission and the cooperation of organizations around the state, Merit has greatly expanded MichNet?s dial-in infrastructure for the benefit of Michigan?s education communities, said Gregory Marks, Merit associate director for online services and dial-in project leader.
In Michigan, getting a dial-in connection to the Internet is complicated by the fact that within the state there are approximately 245 “local calling areas,” he noted. Phones in such a local calling area can, in most cases, call only numbers also within that area without incurring long distance charges. Thus, to have local dial-in access to the Internet, there must be dial-in equipment physically located within an individual?s particular local calling area.
That works well in urban centers where usage can support the operations of an Internet service provider within each calling area, but it fails in many areas with populations too small to support a traditional commercial provider. Historically, Michigan?s rural and low-population regions have been mostly outside the reach of Internet connectivity.
Merit?s dial-in project was designed to address the access problem throughout the state, including the addition of dial-in equipment in many calling areas not previously served by MichNet or by other Internet providers, according to Marks. The grant added more than 90 new local dial-in sites to MichNet and upgraded 40 existing sites with modems prioritized for K-12, community college, and public library users. More than 95 percent of the state?s population is now within a local call of a MichNet dial-in site.
The benefits of the project have been keenly felt in the state?s “Thumb” region, a largely rural area where little Internet access has been available. Jean Liming, district media and technology coordinator at Lapeer Community Schools, explained that prior to the dial-in project, there was virtually no Internet access in Lapeer.
“We had no way to get our teachers onto the Internet, and developing the funds to install a dial-in site or bring in a direct connection would have been difficult,” she said.
The project?s grant money eased the funding problem by paying to add dial-in sites in Lapeer and in Dryden, as well as for other areas around the state not within a local call of a MichNet dial-in site.
MichNet Access IDs, provided to teachers, administrators, and library staff members in Lapeer under the dial-in project, prompted a great deal of interest in the Internet and prompted collaboration by Lapeer County organizations to develop a community World Wide Web site.
The result is LapeerNet (http://www.lapeer.lib.mi.us/), a collaborative effort of the Lapeer Community Schools, Lapeer Intermediate School District, Lapeer County Library, and Lapeer Technology Coalition. The Web site provides links to area schools, government agencies, civic organizations, and libraries in the county.
According to Liming, building Internet activity in Lapeer has been a real community effort. “The dial-in site and the Web server are located at the county library and use the library?s direct Internet connection,” she said. “The Webmasters are volunteers from the library and from the schools. Lots of other organizations contribute information for the Web site. We all work together here, and I hope our experience is an example for the rest of the state.”
Liming emphasized that a key motivator in the community was the access provided by the dial-in project. Building on the interest shown by people using that access, organizations in Lapeer are working to provide direct Internet connectivity across a fiber optic wide area network that links the county?s high schools.
Residents of the northeastern Lower Peninsula faced a situation similar to that in Lapeer County.
“We often tell people that it?s a long-distance call or a two-hour drive from any library to any other library within our region,” said Becky Cawley, director of the nine-county Northland Library Cooperative, headquartered in Alpena. To bridge the physical distance and lessen the expense of long-distance phone communication, the co-op has for several years had the goal of linking the libraries using the Internet. However, the expense of such a venture has slowed progress.
When Cawley learned of Merit?s dial-in project, she knew it would be an ideal way to help link Northland?s members and expand Internet availability in northern Michigan.
“We now have local call access to the Internet for every library in our region,” Cawley reported. “The new Internet availability immediately improved the way in which the co-op serves its users with information.
“We used to publish an annual CD-ROM listing the holdings of our member libraries, which was used in each of the libraries as a sort of on-line catalog,” said Cawley. The CD-ROM would become outdated immediately, because libraries continually add new holdings.
“Now that our libraries can get to the Internet through a dial-in line, we?ve made our on-line catalog available on the Internet,” said Cawley. Users see the updated holdings as soon as a new piece of material is cataloged. Now library information is available not only to visitors of the libraries, but also to people who want to dial in and search for materials from home.
Northland is a prime mover in encouraging Internet use in northern lower Michigan. The co-op sells Internet accounts, including e-mail and PPP (Point-to-Point Protocol) access to MichNet, to persons within its region, currently more than 700 users.
Among Northland?s active account holders is Jerry Krans, library and media consultant and former sixth-grade teacher for Alpena Public Schools. Using a Northland account, Krans leads his students in a variety of Internet projects. These have included an extended correspondence with Commander Mike Powers, an officer on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea to access the Internet, Powers sent Kran?s class e-mail updates and answered their questions during an Arctic ice-breaking and research mission.
“We view each MichNet dial-in site as a community resource,” said Marks. “Any organization within a community may add modems to a MichNet dial-in site, thereby supplying Internet access for its own users, expanding the number of modems available for sharing within the community, and lowering the per-modem cost for everyone. The basic service installed under the grant is just the beginning; now, local organizations have the ability to step up and really build the capacity and local significance for their community.”
Expansion of MichNet dial-in has a great impact not only on K-12 school, community-college, and public-library users, but also on Merit members and affiliates that make use of MichNet dial-in, Marks added. “Individuals who live and travel in areas of the state not previously served by MichNet can get a dial-in connection in many more locations, good news for those previously unable to get a connection without paying long-distance charges.”
And it?s good news because of what Northland?s Cawley calls the “multiplier effect.” Once Northland began offering Internet accounts, people in her region were able to see for themselves the value of the Internet.
“A couple of years ago we had no businesses with home pages, and now it seems like all of our businesses are developing a presence on the Web,” Cawley said. “There?s also involvement of chambers of commerce, city and county governments, and a variety of community networks. We?ve also seen some commercial Internet service providers start up operation in this area now that we?ve shown that there?s a real desire for Internet access here in rural areas.”