The University Record, April 1, 1997

Merit dial-in project brings Internet to outstate rural areas

The benefits of a recently competed project to expand dial-in Internet connectivity and other network services throughout the state 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, says 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."

The undertaking was a project of Merit Network Inc., a non-profit organization owned by 11 of the state's publicly assisted universities including the U-M, with a $4 million grant from the Michigan Public Servic e Commission and the cooperation of organizations statewide.

In the Thumb area, the project's funds paid for 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.

To view a map of MichNet sites, click here.

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 collaboration by Lapeer County organizations to develop a community WorldWide Web site.

The result is LapeerNet, a collaborative effort that 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 says. "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 emphasizes 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 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," says Becky Cawley, director of the nine-county Northland Library Cooperative, headquartered in Alpena.

"We now have local call access to the Internet for every library in our region," Cawley reports. "The new Internet availability immediately improved the way in which the co-op serves its users with information.

"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," Cawley says. 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 the Alpena Public Schools. Krans leads his students in a variety of Internet projects, including an extended correspondence w ith Commander Mike Powers, an officer on the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Polar Sea. Using the ship's satellite link to access the Internet, Powers sent Krans' class e-mail updates and answered their questions during an Arctic ice-breaking and research mission.

Cawley also notes that the project has had a "multiplier effect" throughout the community.

"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."

Project a result of collaborative efforts

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.

Merit Network Inc. took up the challenge with the help of a $4 million grant from the Michigan Public Service Commission and the cooperation of organizations statewide.

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," notes Gregory Marks, Merit associate director for on-line services and dial-in project leader.

Those in local calling areas 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.

Merit's dial-in project was designed to address the access problem throughout the state, and the grant made possible the addition of more than 90 new local dial-in sites to MichNet and upgrading of 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.

"We view each MichNet dial-in site as a community resource," Marks says. "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 who make use of MichNet dial-in, Marks adds. "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."