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U.P. broadband expansion receives federal funding

MARQUETTE — The $1.5 trillion omnibus spending package that passed the U.S. House and Senate and was recently signed by President Joe Biden includes $1.2 million in congressionally directed spending that will enable Northern Michigan University to expand LTE broadband service to rural communities in the Upper Peninsula and northeastern Lower Peninsula through its Educational Access Network.

“Northern Michigan University has been a leader in providing broadband access to the residents of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula for many years,” said NMU Interim President Kerri Schuiling in a statement. “This funding is vital to continuing the work NMU initiated to ensure the continuation of quality internet access.”

Gavin Leach, NMU vice president for Finance and Administration, said fast, reliable and affordable high-speed broadband is a critical tool for driving rural economic development and an improved standard of living.

“It is also essential for education, which became increasingly evident with home-based schooling during the pandemic,” he said in a statement. “Northern has already delivered this service to more than 100 U.P. communities that previously had limited or no broadband access. We look forward to extending its reach to further bridge the digital divide. Northern appreciates the efforts of Congressman Jack Bergman to include this earmark in the bill, and the support of Michigan Sens. Debbie Stabenow and Gary Peters in voting to approve the spending package.”

U.S. Rep. Jack Bergman, R-Watersmeet, was quoted as saying, “I was proud to champion this important project and work closely with the team at NMU to help bring broadband to constituents in the U.P. First District communities struggle to compete in the 21st century economy without proper high-speed connectivity. This is another step in the right direction to continue our effort to expand broadband across the entirety of the First District of Michigan.”

NMU’s expansion project is scheduled to be completed within a year. It will provide designated communities with new high-speed, 5G-capable wireless LTE broadband.

Additionally, NMU officials indicated that the project will promote the communities’ ability to ensure sustainable futures through internet-based wastewater treatment monitoring; no-cost library internet service; mobile internet service for public works vehicles; mobile hotspots for schools and tribal communities; and assistance with the ability to control and monitor equipment, perform research in community databases, and access maps and infrastructure documents — all remotely. NMU also has enabled mobile data connections for law enforcement to access state and federal information networks.

U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Gary Peters, D-Bloomfield Hills, announced in a news release that they ensured this funding in the federal budget bill was enacted into law.

They pointed out that the Educational Access Network is open to university and K-12 students as well as eligible community members, alumni and U.S. military veterans.

The Educational Access Network currently serves 113 communities in the U.P., the senators said. This investment will fill in the gaps in coverage in the U.P. and establish the network’s first services in the northern Lower Peninsula. The project is estimated to have $3.2 million per year in economic impact.

“In today’s world, you need reliable high-speed internet for everything from work, school, doctors’ visits and paying your bills,” Stabenow said in a statement. “In many parts of the Upper Peninsula and northern Michigan, many residents don’t have reliable internet service, which is why Sen. Peters and I strongly supported final passage of this budget bill.

“Northern Michigan University is already providing innovative and affordable, high-speed internet, and I’m excited this new investment will allow them to serve even more residents.”

In a statement, Peters said, “Whether you are a student completing school work, running a small business or working from home, high-speed internet access is critical to keeping our communities strong and connected. I was proud to secure this funding, which will help Northern Michigan University build on its success providing Michiganders in rural communities across the Upper Peninsula with fast and reliable internet access.

“I’ll continue working to expand affordable internet options and close the digital divide in our state.”