How University Wi-Fi Networks Better Digital Equity in Surrounding Communities

Northern Michigan University Chooses Quality Rural Connection

Instead of buildings and busy streets, the team at Northern Michigan University had some very different issues to overcome when providing wireless access to its surrounding communities.

Located in the city of Marquette in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, NMU began its first outreach into the community by providing internet access to the entire county in 2002.

“At the time, two-thirds of our students lived off campus, and many are pretty rural. Marquette is the largest city in the area with 22,000 residents. We asked ourselves, how can we help our students off campus with better internet access?” says Gavin Leach, vice president for finance and administration at NMU.

But the school wanted to extend its reach, realizing there was much more need. According to the most recent report from the Federal Communications Commission, approximately 17 percent of people in rural areas and 21 percent in tribal lands lack adequate internet coverage.

In 2008, the university received FCC-licensed EBS spectrum to broadcast wireless broadband throughout Marquette County, which covered about seven local communities where the majority of off-campus student lived. The program has expanded its capacity ever since. Today the system serves more than 16,000 families (including NMU faculty and students) in 117 communities, which includes six tribal communities.

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One of the most challenging installations provides internet access to a school was near the beginning of the project in Big Bay, Mich., about 30 miles north of Marquette.

“They couldn’t get broadband, and there was no good fiber running that direction,” says Leach. “But there was a lighthouse in Lake Superior on a tiny island, about 10 miles out from the coast that was owned by a former university board member. We used a microwave signal to reach the lighthouse and then redirected the signal into Big Bay. We power the system with wind and solar power and propane in winter. It creates some challenges — the windmills and solar panels take a beating — but it works.”

The network is self-sustaining. Families with children in school or college pay $20 a month for high-speed service and community members pay $35 a month — rates well below commercial offerings. Federal money will help fund future upgrades.

To keep things running, NMU works with many private companies, including snowplowing services and electricians, along with a strong NMU IT staff.

“It’s been pretty exciting,” Leach says of the process. “We hope to continue to grow to really serve the people of the area.”

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