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.