Staying connected way up north

(Originally published March 30, 2011)

When President Obama decided to stump for his plan to make high-speed wireless services in reach of virtually every American within five years, he flew to a city whose Internet access is a model for the country. It has helped students, improved government services and contributed to growth in private sector jobs.

Northern Michigan University in Marquette is the only university in the country to operate its own WiMAX (4G) wireless network service that transfers data at distances far beyond what’s typically available with traditional wi-fi.

“We have gained a national reputation for being high-tech among educational organizations and technology organizations, said Northern Michigan University News Director Kristi Evans. “But from a general public perception, I don’t know if a lot of people understand what WiMAX does, or all the other things we’ve done prior to this.”

WiMAX is an extension of the technology initiative that has been in place at NMU since 2000, when Northern launched its notebook computer initiative in which every full-time student is issued a notebook computer as part of tuition and fees. Along with the computer comes the support and software to ensure that all students are on equal grounds technology-wise.

After launching the notebook computer program, NMU developed both a wired and wireless infrastructure on campus to support the program. The spark for WiMAX was the desire to give the two-thirds of students living off campus equal access to Northern’s network via broadband. Many didn’t have Internet access either because commercial broadband was too expensive or because only dial-up service available.

NMU installed its first WiMAX transmitter in 2009. WiMAX now covers about 40 square miles and is available to students and faculty with an NMU-issued computer.

In exchange for the right to install WiMAX towers in other communities, NMU has also installed systems in cities and townships for non-commercial use, so city government, police, fire, and K-12 schools within the coverage area can use WiMAX.

As a result, Obama pointed out in his speech at NMU, police officers can access crime data bases in their cars, firefighters can download blueprints on the way to a burning building, public works officials can save money by monitoring pumps and equipment online, and K-12 students have new on-line learning opportunities.

Free WiMAX will save the city of Marquette about $10,000 a year it would have spent on broadband service, said Dan Frederickson, the city’s acting director of IT.

“Already NMU and the city have seem a positive result from the use of WiMAX throughout the community,” he said. “As we continue to expand the service, we’re going to be able to use it in more and more locations for more and more services, and save money in the process.”

Thanks to WiMAX, officers can complete their reports online in their squad cars instead of returning to the office, and it’s hoped that firefighters will be able to access any security cameras surrounding an emergency location and utilize mobile positioning.

While in Marquette, Obama met Rocky and Carol Getz, owners of Getz’s Clothiers, a third-generation downtown store. Internet sales now make up 60 percent of the store’s revenue, and Getz’s was recently listed as one of America’s 5,000 fastest-growing companies.

NMU’s WiMAX is only for non-commercial use.

“But the university’s been very instrumental in driving broadband access throughout the city,” said John Spigarelli, Getz’s vice president of marketing and e-commerce. “When I first started doing this with Getz’s, we were still dialing in. With NMU being so pro-active with technology programs, they’ve really pushed the local providers to provide great access. AT&T and Charter have been wonderful with what they’ve done here.”

Getz’s has a contract with both, and said the store’s online business has meant adding 15 well-paid full-time jobs, as well as up to 20 seasonal part-time positions.

“Being able to grow jobs is a super huge pride point for us,” he said.

WiMAX extends beyond Marquette proper to surrounding communities, including Big Bay, Ishpeming, Negaunee, Big Bay, and the former KI Sawyer Air Force Base.

NMU built a WiMAX tower on an old mine shaft in Ishpeming, which is up and running for NMU students in the area, but the neighboring cities of Ishpeming and Negaunee are still in the process of making it work for non-commercial use in the area.

Ishpeming City Manager Jered Ottenwess looks forward to that day. He said it will be especially helpful for police officers to immediately access information on their laptops rather than relying on communication over the radio with central dispatch.

WiMax has made a major difference for NMU students living off campus, said
senior Darren St.Amour, who now can work anywhere in Marquette.

“I take online courses when I can, and it’s great to be able to sit on the beach or at a park and get my schoolwork done,” he said. “It also provides a great low cost connection to the Internet at home. Instead of paying the $50 or so a month from local ISPs, I’m able to hook up directly to WiMAX with my laptop provided through the school.”

Installing WiMAX was a long, complicated process involving several partnerships with Intel and others, said Gavin Leach, NMU’s vice president for finance and administration. NMU used dollars set aside for upgrading and maintaining Internet network infrastructure to pay for WiMAX.

Obama praised the university for being one of the most connected in the country after having the insight to partner with various companies to build a high speed next generation wireless network.

“And you managed to install it with six people in only four days without raising tuition,” he said. “Good job! … There’s a whole bunch of stuff in Washington I’d like to see done in four days with six people.”

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