Detroit Suburbs, Prodded by Public School System, Consider I-Net Collaboration

Just outside of Detroit, Michigan, Grosse Pointe communities and institutions are considering whether to work with local Internet service provider Rocket Fiber to build an institutional network (I-Net).

The Grosse Pointe suburbs, or “the Pointes”, are composed of five independent municipalities situated along a strip of land northeast of the city, jutting slightly into Lake St. Clair. Their network, tentatively called the Grosse Pointe Area Educational Telecommunications Network (GP EdNet), would connect schools, libraries, and municipal buildings with 10 Gigabit per second (Gbps) speeds.

If the cities and institutions all approve the arrangement, they would form a consortium, consisting of the City of Grosse Pointe, Grosse Pointe Park, Grosse Pointe Farms, Grosse Pointe Woods, Harper Woods, the Grosse Pointe Public Library, and the Grosse Pointe Public School System.

Under the current plan, Rocket Fiber would build the institutional fiber network for the public partners and provide maintenance for 20 years. The consortium would own and provide voice and Internet services. During construction, the ISP would also lay down its own fiber in order to offer Internet services to nearby residents and businesses at some point in the future.

Rocket Fiber has estimated total cost for the 14-mile long GP EdNet at under $3 million. Participating communities and institutions would split the core expenses but each would be individually responsible for financing the connections from their own buildings to the main fiber ring.

Schools Leading the Way

Under the leadership of Superintendent Gary Niehaus, the Grosse Pointe Public School System has propelled the project forward by rallying support in the various communities and issuing the initial RFP. Niehaus has wanted to build a community owned network since joining the school system, inspired by his former district in Illinois which had also built a fiber network.

Grosse Pointe schools now spend about $225,000 per year to access the Internet. Constructing the GP EdNet would lower connectivity expenses for the school system and other consortium members while significantly improving quality. For comparison, Falmouth, Massachusetts, saved about $160,000 per year by connecting schools and other public buildings to a publicly owned network, according to an estimate from 2015. Communities reap even more financial benefits when they self-provision telephone services. In Austin, Texas, the Greater Austin Area Telecommunications Network (GAATN) saved the local school district $5.8 million in 2011, largely by switching to VoIP telephone service.

Seal-Grosse-Pointe-MI.jpg The school system also needs the network to access essential technologies, like online testing. “This is the first year we gave an electronic state test because we didn’t have the bandwidth,” Niehaus told the Grosse Pointe News. “We used everything we had in order to get those tests in.”

The benefits that high-speed connectivity would bring to the schools extend beyond the classroom walls. As Grosse Pointe Park Mayor Robert Denner pointed out, “The lifeblood of our communities is the success of our school system.”

Waiting for Votes

The City of Grosse Pointe was first to approve the agreement, voting unanimously to join the consortium on April 16. Grosse Pointe Public School System and Grosse Pointe Park, also with a unanimous vote, soon followed.

One community, Grosse Pointe Shores, has decided to “indefinitely” table the proposal over concerns about the network’s cost. Though the other communities’ approval was contingent upon all of the consortium members signing on, the Grosse Pointe Times reports that Niehaus is confident the network can progress with some changes to the agreement. He noted that the biggest change is that the cost of the network will be divided among fewer parties.

Grosse Pointe Farms, Grosse Pointe Woods, and Grosse Pointe Public Library have not voted on the proposal yet. If they approve the agreement soon, the I-Net could be constructed by as early as the summer of 2019. Rocket Fiber plans start to offer residential and businesses services several months later.

View a summary of the plan presented to Grosse Pointe Farms and the consortium agreement [pdf].

Image of downtown Grosse Pointe courtesy of Wayne County Economic Development.