In this episode of The Broadband Bunch, we speak with Merit Network’s Bob Stovall, Charlotte Bewersdorff, and Pierrette Renée Dagg about the Michigan Moonshot, Merit Network, broadband networking know-how and more.
Bob Stovall: Merit Network was established in 1966 by three of the large research universities in Michigan: Michigan State University, Wayne State University, and the University of Michigan. It started as part of the computer science departments, when some smart people decided that it would be even more powerful of their resources if they could tie them together. The old Merit Network history joke is that these computer scientists wanted to work together, but they realized that with the competitive nature of universities, if they got caught working together, they would get fired. But they created Merit to a catalyst and collaborator.
Since then, things have evolved and Merit expanded into providing services to other members, or universities in the state. The first two universities that joined the triad after it was established were Western Michigan University and Michigan Tech University, and it’s grown. Now all but one of the public universities in Michigan is a member of Merit Network.
When I started in 1989, Merit was still building our own routers. This is when the NSF first granted the funding to create the first national TCP IP network, which Merit was the operator of, working with MCI and IBM to create that first network, and a lot of regional education networks, like my Merit, was doing things on their own. And when I started, like I said, we were building our own routers. My background was hardware, wire wrapping, back planes, building routers from the ground up. By the mid-nineties, NSF was very successful, and we started expanding our services not only to the universities here in Michigan, but to other agencies, like K-12 and libraries, governmental agencies, and we started prophesying the need for internet service, and that’s when the private sector took over NSF, and that’s when the internet took off in 1995.
My focus has been with networking, designing networks, and working with Michigan’s public sector; universities, community colleges, private universities, K-12, and libraries, and governmental agencies. My role has changed and over the last five years, I’ve been focused on our long-term strategy and where our network’s going to take us.
Charlotte Bewersdorff: First and foremost, we’re a nonprofit, mission-driven organization. Merit’s mission is connecting organizations and building community. We provide network security and community related services to our member organizations. To make society a better place to learn, discover, work, and live in the State of Michigan. In the network and security realms, the technology services that we deliver to our member organizations spans from a very small. An example would be a library organization maybe with two people, in terms of IT resources all the way up to the large universities in the state. It’s a broad breadth of both size and organizations that we serve and deliver services to, as well as their needs are obviously very varying across the board.
I joined the organization in October 2013 as the director of sales, which was Merit’s first ever. I joined the senior leadership team in the Fall of 2017. And now work with our member engagement, marketing and communications, and member support teams to serve over 400 affiliate member organizations across the State of Michigan, which consists of K-12, higher education institutions, library, government organizations, and nonprofits.
Pete Pizzutillo: What was the motivation for the Michigan Moonshot?
Pierrette Renée Dagg: Merit Network is a mission driven organization, and we feel the access to and use of the internet is an integral component of everyday life in the 21st century. The digital information age has reshaped how people are participating in every dimension of society, from education and the homework gap, to public safety, telemedicine, workforce development, and generally maintaining the quality of life for our citizens.
Merit’s primarily focused on bridging the digital divide regarding the homework gap. Our estimate in the State of Michigan is that 380,000 households lack access to basic broadband, that translates to more than 27% of our K-12 students. While at the same time, more than 70% of our K-12 students are assigned homework that requires use of the internet.
Our president, Joe Sawasky, had the privilege of traveling into Northern Michigan to visit some of our anchor institution sites. He came across on this dark and snowy winter groups of children in vans circled around a McDonald’s. He asked the member that he was with what was going on and they said, “Well that’s how they do their homework at night.”
We started digging into this and found that this is an issue that’s pervasive throughout many areas of Michigan. Our goal is to act as a catalyst organization to bridge the gap between public-private partnerships, information anchor institutions, and schools to impact the homework gap.
Charlotte Bewersdorff: I’d only add that in 2018 the governor’s office and the State of Michigan was gathering a group that they called the Michigan Consortium of Advanced Networks. And it was a number of different working groups that our president, Joe Sawasky, had the privilege of working on. That experience, and it leading as a big contributor to the Michigan Broadband Roadmap, is what got our senior leadership team kind of reflecting on the accomplishments of what we’ve done over the past 20 years about our mission and connecting community anchor institutions. And through that reflection, we see the end in sight within the next decade, that every library, school building, and community anchor institution will be connected to broadband services.
When we began to look at the next horizon, and identifying a societal challenge that Merit could affect, that issue was the homework gap. The Michigan Moonshot is certainly a catalyst. I think our real value as a research and education network is to act as a convener of collaboration. So underneath our membership pillar, this is something we have a deep history in and bringing the right organizations together to address certain challenges or problems and getting everyone to the table at the right time and focus on solving problems.
The Moonshot initiative is organized under three strategic pillars. The first is data and mapping. Secondly, funding and policy. And third is education and resources. We chose those pillars specifically because we believe that they present the biggest challenges to Michigan communities in closing the digital divide.
Pete Pizzutillo: Data and mapping helps in understanding the true gap, or what is available versus not available. There’s a lot of conversation around the FCC reporting data. How are you trying to fill in or verify that information that’s currently available?
Charlotte Bewersdorff: We’ve just completed a pilot program in partnership with Michigan’s K-12 community, as well as Michigan State University’s Quello Center and the Measurement Lab. This idea came about in July of 2018, we provided a set of comments to the NTIA open comment period during that summer. After that, we talked to the Quello team and decided that we were onto a unique concept in terms of the approach that we were taking to data collection and that coming from an unbiased non-carrier related research aspect.
We launched this pilot effort and selected three communities across the state of Michigan. One on the west side, one in southeast, and one in the eastern upper peninsula. We had over 200 classrooms participate in the pilot study. Our citizen scientists were K-12 students, age 13 and older. We ended up with eighth grade through 11th grade, because due to it just being kind of a large undertaking, and it just happened that by the time we collected data we were in standardized testing time, and it was also a school year with the most snow days in like the past decade within Michigan. So as it happened, a lot of challenges obviously around privacy and kind of working through approvals with all of that. This was a strict oversight by the IRB at Michigan State University in order to guarantee privacy protection for our citizen scientists.
We finished collection in the spring of 2019 and are reviewing the data, the Michigan State Quello team will be releasing formal findings in early January of 2020.
Pete Pizzutillo: Are you looking at just the bandwidth that’s available or are you looking at more robust measures like reliability and latency?
Charlotte Bewersdorff: I can speak to what we’re collecting, and it would be helpful to walk through the research logistics. We do an in-classroom survey for each school that has kits that they deploy to each classroom that’s involved in data collection. Within the classroom, the teachers provide a short video on the digital divide, how it impacts you and your ability to be successful as a student. The students are asked to complete an in-classroom survey, that’s a sentiment survey. They are also asked to go home and complete an assignment, which consists of another survey and a speed test. We’ve selected the mLab speed test as the largest repository of networks and speed tests in the world.
Pete Pizzutillo: What’s your expectations in terms of when you think this can be achieved, and what have we gotten done so far, and what do you see as some of the major milestones ahead?
Charlotte Bewersdorff: Like the initial Moonshot, fully realizing all that this initiative encompasses will take a decade and beyond for certain. And that’s inclusive of every home connected to broadband services. In terms of where we’ve made progress, and what we have still left to do, for us, this initiative is in its infancy overall in that it just launched this summer. The seed was planted in spring of 2018, so I’d say we’ve made the most progress in the data and mapping area. In terms of we have a pilot completed, we understand how we want to scale that out with K-12 citizen scientists across the State of Michigan, and there’s also application with other community anchor verticals as well. I have a vision for seeing a city, township, village, county government get involved, as well as our library community, and potentially higher ed getting involved in the data collection end of things. Certainly from a research perspective, Michigan State University’s already contributing there.
Charlotte Bewersdorff: In the policy and funding area, Merit is acting as an educator. We’re doing a lot of activities and having discussions at both the federal and state level, educating legislators, trying to distill all that is going into a format that I think is digestible for communities that are perhaps poorly resourced within the state. We’ve got work to do in the policy and funding area. Another vision there is that we will act to help communities get one-time capital investment funding perhaps for their community builds, as well as potentially some form of a subsidy program within the State of Michigan should that ever become realized.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: The first step for us is the Michigan Moonshot Broadband framework, which is a 100-page step-by-step guide to planning, building, and running a community network. As we were looking, we started on this initiative and we looked at tools all over. So everybody from next century cities to the Institute for Local Self Reliance and tons of other players and other websites, like the Pots and Pans blog, and there were guides, there were a step-by-step smart cities booklets, things like that, but we, as a research and education network, weren’t really able to find a comprehensive community network guide that encompassed everything with planning, building and running. Everything from taking a look at the potential technologies, to financial modeling, to building stakeholders, to end user communications, to the technical aspects of a build. And certainly we weren’t able to find anything that was tailored to the unique challenges in our state as far as terrain, geography, and legislation goes.
What we did with this framework is we looked at all the national standards that existed, and used those with, it’s a crowdsource document. So more than 20 organizations from leading broadband organizations and experts throughout the United States contributed to this resource, and we pulled all of those together, and then in the spots where we found that there were gaps, we filled in with our own subject matter experts. So this whole broadband framework aims to be a crowdsource document that is a community network primer and the basis for our community’s roadmap. It’s also then written in a way that does not require technical expertise or knowledge. Certainly, it’s suitable for technical experts, but also the interested municipal advocate, or the interested group who are forming a regional broadband group, or economic development group, or things along those lines.
We’ve collected their views on policy and technology, community success stories from communities who have deployed broadband networks, both in terms of technology and financial modeling throughout the State of Michigan. Links to all of these existing resources, planning tools, and then in addition, we’re publishing online a 700 page appendix, and in this 700 page appendix, you’ll be able to get links to RFP and RFQ templates, sample municipal resolutions, and things like that. Our goal is to get this into as many hands as possible just to help rise all time in terms of broadband. Following that, we’ve also deployed a series of webinars that feature other industry experts throughout the United States. Many of which are some of these contributing organizations that worked on the municipal broadband framework and those are providing deep dives of information on specific topics, such as data collection for your particular effort, or overviews of this framework, financial modeling for decision makers, grant funding, things like that.
We’ve started the webinars series. We’ve had a couple of them so far that have taken place, and we’ve announced six more online, and then we’ll continue to grow those, and we’re also building these out as a resource content repository. So an individual group will be able to come, download the framework, review the RFP document, and then they’ll be able to watch, as it pertains to them, these key areas of deep dive information. And we’re just going to continue to grow and build on that. We had, this last September, the first Michigan Broadband Summit, so we took all of the people who might be interested within our community and linked them together with experts and policymakers and content as we were starting to begin to release the framework, and we anticipate obviously continuing that as years progress, and then we also plan to do quite a number of road shows throughout the spring and summer in various areas throughout Michigan.
Pete Pizzutillo: It’s a testament to the work that’s been done by many other communities. There’s a lot of tribal knowledge that’s locked up. So being able to aggregate and share that help community leaders step forward with a little less fear.
Pete Pizzutillo: If we’re looking at the timeline of 10 to 20 years, do we have the technology that we need to make this a reality? Are there any obstacles that are not being tackled, or is there anything that you’re looking forward to that you feel are going to help accelerate the timelines as we see them today?
Bob Stovall: There’s not just one magic tool that’s going to solve all the problems, but some stuff that is coming, technology that’s coming down the road that’s going to help, especially in the very rural tough areas. One is the low orbit satellite technology that’s being investigated, and being passed down. That could really help in the real rural areas where it’s going to be tough to build to and tough to deliver high capacity services.
5G can help with a very low-density communities, where you have a household every two square miles or so, you could deliver power’s out to areas that could maybe reach some of these remote communities. But the limitations with 5G is a challenge, because there’s a big investment in putting towers up, putting your back haul in and you to get full uniformity of service. You need a tower about every thousand feet or so. So there’s a lot of different challenges. Ultimately, if money and things was not a challenge, fiber to the home is building a network of tomorrow that will have the capacity to deliver the services today, tomorrow, and beyond. But the cost is not, that’s not a reality.
We need to look at wireless and other technologies to deliver that service. I know that they’re making some headway on, again, running internet service over power lines. That was tested out about 20 years ago, it didn’t really take, but now my understanding is that there’s been some headway on that it may be a viable in some areas that it will be good for getting services to some of these remote homes.
What’s coming into our future? I think we should turn over every stone, check out every possible scenario, and try to find a technology that’ll fit a community. When you’re in a state like Michigan, we have a lot of… As Pierrette mentioned earlier, a lot of tough terrain from trees, to water, to hills. And we have other weather challenges, so we do need to look at all these different technologies to get to where we need to be. The one thing that I’m pretty sure about moving forward is that the reliance on TDM has got to go away, because that does create a lot of limitations that I do not believe will scale into the future.
Pierrette Renée Dagg: It’s exactly as Bob mentioned, we need to make sure that we’re scaling with the future and we’re future proofing these networks. So a lot of times when communities or municipalities or even for-profit providers are looking at what’s the best solution to get connectivity to a community. There are tons of solutions, and as Bob mentioned, there’s not going to be any one that’s going to be a silver bullet, and we’ve seen that in some of the successful communities that already have implemented some sort of community network in their own communities, but I think it’s always important to remember Nielsen’s Law, which I’m sure we’re all aware of, and that basically states that while connected user’s bandwidth needs are going to grow 50% each year, and that data has been pretty consistent, from 1983 all the way to today.
The average household broadband speed for a well-connected consumer is about 300 megs. And that exceeds a lot of the bandwidth minimum to be considered broadband right now. So if you assume that that trend is going to continue for the next 35 years, that’s going to put an average needed speed at a gig and a half. And if we’re going to, as communities start to come online and they start planning the infrastructure, and all of the costs and sweat equity that goes into building a network, I think it’s pretty critical to be considering that we need to choose solutions and build things out that are going to be at least able to adhere to that Nielsen’s Law of Need as we go forward so we’re not exponentially increasing our costs every time we need to rip things out and redo them.
Pete Pizzutillo: I think sustainability is something that needs to be a little bit more in the conversation. There’s a lot of rush for competing providers, private providers, even some publicly funded ones too, to build out coverage. And if you’d look forward 10, 15 years, the questions we have are, if we’re not sharing infrastructure or finding ways to share services, are all those systems or networks sustainable? Folks like yourselves that are bringing the communities together to work together can help find collaboration where people are going to start sharing and thinking that way from not only a scalability and future bandwidth, but also how do we afford these systems over time, and making sure that we’re making good cooperative decisions today that will benefit us downstream.
Pete Pizzutillo: The Merit Network has taken on an amazing and important mission. I don’t think anybody would dispute that bridging the homework gap is critical, but also just getting for those folks that are not plugged into the digital economy, part of the digital economy is also critical for them in their future as well as all of the small municipalities. How can the legislators that are listening or any of the citizens that are out there and even the providers, what is it that we can do to help?
Charlotte Bewersdorff: I think it is important to kind of talk about the fabric of the community that we’re trying to convene here. I see Merit’s role in this initial phase is kind of building the vehicle, right? So we’ve got these pillars, we’re trying to bring all the resources to the table so that it’s easier for communities to access the, whether it’s the knowledge of technologies, whether it’s the financial model components, all of this ball of wax that goes into delivery of broadband services. So trying to kind of pair that effort down and clear away the static is our initial goal.
Ultimately, we are going to most easily and effectively affect this issue at the local level. But I think it needs to be done in orchestration, kind of up the stack at the regional level, as well at the statewide level, and then there’s a component of national collaboration that needs to happen that can affect things in Washington at the federal level. So we have organizations like Shelby that we are a member of, and we work very closely with them and look for them to lead a lot of those federal level activities, but we want to be a part of it so we can distill that and bring that back to the Michigan communities.
The most important area that we’re making progress on is this education and resources area. The immediate goal is to provide all of the theory and the conceptual ideas around broadband and the deployment of community networks in this framework document, but the real rubber hits the road when communities know how to take actionable steps to make progress, and we can affect that at a very local level through our community anchor relationships. I think that Merit is well positioned, any research and education network with strong community anchor membership is well positioned to affect this issue and try to tie in public private partnerships with the ISPs that deliver services to these communities. I mean, Merit will never become a residential provider. So absolutely commercial ISPs are a part of this initiative and this platform, and they have a role to play, so we’re trying to get everyone to the table focused on solving the problem together. And our focus is at being active at the local community level, but as a statewide effort, I think we can affect that too.
Bob Stovall: I’d like to add for legislators and public policy, my biggest recommendation is let’s stop funding yesterday’s network requirements or today’s network requirements. Let’s start funding tomorrow’s network. Start thinking into the future and put our resources to that, where we’re not continuing, reinvesting, reinvesting, and reinvesting that we can set out a standard that will be lasting for a few life cycles or a few cycles. All too often we see opportunities and the requirements at such a low standard. We’re just extending today’s network, and today’s capacity, we need to start thinking into the future and make these investments last. When we look at road building, do we build a road that only lasts for five years? No. So why are we doing that with broadband?
Pierrette Renée Dagg: I would, just to put a cap on what Charlotte and Bob say, for anybody, whether you’re a policy maker, an advocate, an anchor institution, a regional economic development group, I’d obviously encourage everybody to visit merit.edu/moonshot. That’s where you can find information on all of these publicly available resources. And I would also be very remiss if I didn’t mention encouraging everybody to follow our hashtag, which is #fixthedamninternet, because we post links to a lot of these things there as well. So that one’s easy to remember.