Internet creates opportunities at northern Michigan schools

By STEPHEN INGBER

Capital News Service

LANSING — For a long time, the Upper Peninsula and the northern part of the Lower Peninsula have lacked access to high-speed Internet, but that’s changing, education and technology experts say.

Merit Network Inc., which promotes computer networking in Michigan, won a $103 million grant from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) to provide fiber-optic cable to “community anchor institutions.”

The focus for Merit was primarily on K-12 education and libraries, said Elwood Downing, vice president of member relations, communications, services and product development at the Ann Arbor-based nonprofit company.

With the grant, Merit laid 2,300 miles of fiber-optic cable across the U.P. and the northern half of the Lower Peninsula.

“The Cheboygan-Otsego-Presque Isle Educational Service District benefited the most, having almost no connectivity before we came in,” Downing said. The district is headquartered in Indian River.

According to the district’s technology plan, one goal is to use quality technology to foster its implementation and use at the local level.

Having traveled the country, Downing said he has seen Michigan find creative ways to provide high-speed Internet service to rural areas through the grant money.

It’s not that the U.P. lacks access to the Internet — it’s the cost, says Jason Kronemeyer, director of technology for the Eastern Upper Peninsula Intermediate School District (EUPISD), in Sault Ste. Marie. Currently most options are costly and come from cell phone companies or small area telecommunication providers.

Merit has been able to link school districts that could never reach high Internet speeds, Downing said. Having the EUPISD link to one point is more efficient and allows more affordable options to the district, Kronemeyer said.

Currently the district’s main connection is at Lake Superior State University, in Sault Ste. Marie.

Merit allows participating schools to choose how much bandwidth they want to use.

School districts in the U.P. are able to provide distance-learning opportunities to its students through the Internet.

Through a separate grant, EUPISD provides its students in grades 7-12 with Netbooks.

These “mini computers” allow educators to create more in-depth hands-on curriculums. Music teachers to science teachers have benefited from these grants, Anthony Wilhem, an administrator at the NTIA, said.

For example, Wilhem said music teachers use online software to teach their students how to write scores and science teachers can show computer simulations of fruit flies breeding in genetics lessons.

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