Chelsea School District and Midwest Energy Talk Collaboration

By Seth Kinker,

During the Chelsea Board of Education meeting Sept. 5 Terry Rubenthaler, Chief Technology Officer at Midwest Energy and Communications (MEC), made a presentation to the board regarding a potential partnership between MEC and the Chelsea School District (CSD).

MEC, a member-owned electric and communications cooperative, is the same company that Lyndon Township hired in May to be the internet service provider (ISP) for the township’s fiber-optic broadband network.

During Rubenthaler’ presentation to the board, he talked about connections being needed between Cassopolis, MI. (the headquarter of MEC) and Lyndon township. MEC has been able to secure connections as far as downtown Chelsea, but connection from downtown Chelsea to Lyndon is still needed to get broadband internet access to Lyndon.

One way would be to go under the AMTRAK railroads that run through the city. Rubenthaler told the board last Monday that it took two years to get a permit to put two inches of pipe under the track. When it came down to it, Lyndon didn’t want to wait that long for their new connection. At that point, MEC began looking at other options and were notified that the CSD already had fiber installed.

Rubenthaler first reached out to Scott Wooster, Director of Technology for the CSD, who then reached out to Superintendent Julie Helber. After preliminary talks, MEC was able to draw up a proposal for a maintenance agreement for both parties to look at together. At that point, Helber asked MEC to come in and present that information to the board.

The proposal includes MEC tapping into the fiber optic network that the CSD already has, as well as build off of what is already installed, in order to make the connection to Lyndon township.

In exchange for use of two strands of fiber, CSD has 12 and currently uses two, MEC would be able to strengthen and make the connection more reliable. In addition to a better connection, Rubenthaler also stated that MEC would be willing to maintain all the lines in the CSD. In exchange for use, they would make any repairs, take care of downed lines, troubleshoot, and update the system to current standards when need be.

“They want to tap into the fiber that’s closer to the high school,” said Helber. “And they would connect it over by North Creek Elementary. They do need to dig a line to connect it to where their lines come into the city.”

Prior to this potential agreement, CSD didn’t have a maintenance contract with any company for their fiber-optic network.

“That was really the most attractive tradeoff for doing this outside of the fact that we were going to be able to contribute to help bring broadband service to our students and families in Lyndon township,” continued Helber. “In exchange for us to have someone maintain our fiber throughout the district, what this agreement does is help us. Each time a squirrel chews a line we have to contract that out. It’s typically around a couple thousand dollars to get that fixed. Having someone monitor a little more closely on the weekends, and there are so many day to day operations during the week that we’re not just sitting here monitoring our fiber. So, for them having someone to monitor and get someone to us maybe prior to an outage or something happening here is a benefit to all of us. And that cost avoidance of having to repair fiber breaks is also attractive too.”

Wooster spoke to the board after Rubenthaler’s presentation stating that it was “a win for the district.” In addition to having the chance to have a contracted maintenance provider, Wooster went on to say the infrastructure of the current system supported this idea. The extra 10 strands owned by the district currently don’t see any use, they are extras for capacity, and the two strands used by MEC would have no effect on the school’s service.

Gary Munce, of the Lyndon Township Implementation Committee, was on hand at the meeting as well, thanking the board for their willingness to listen. He echoed the thoughts of board member Dana Durst who said it was a unique chance at a partnership between MEC, the CSD, and Lyndon. Munce went on to say that 40 percent of households in Lyndon didn’t meet the standard for internet speeds, around 800 households. Munce said that making this connection happen and getting broadband to the township would affect 400-500 families.

Now, for the CSD, it’s a matter of crossing their T’s and dotting their I’s.

“Once we met (with MEC) and had a conversation and they had a chance to write up a maintenance agreement and we looked at it together, I told them I’m going to need you to present this to my board and then I’m going to need to take that to our attorneys,” said Helber. “so right now, that’s where we’re sitting. It’s sitting with our attorneys who are doing some work on that. There are some school specific legal requirements that we have to be mindful of that, typically, companies that are outside the public sector don’t always understand those ins and outs. We have to look at things like did we lay the fiber with bond dollars, there are some regulations through the telecommunications act that we have to be mindful of.  A lot of those things are now what our attorneys are working through the agreement on. I suspect the agreement will change a little bit based on what’s in the best interest of the school district and our attorneys have a chance to review it and make sure it’s all compliant with any legal requirements we might need.”

Another example of some of the things the attorneys have to vet include making sure what they can or can’t do in relation to the telecommunications act, like leasing more than 25 percent of their fiber. The CSD would be well within those parameters, owning 12 strands, but those are the types of things that will be checked before a contract is presented to the board.

The timeframe for the contract stands at five years with automatic renewal after that, but Helber told The Sun Times that it’s already written into the contract that the CSD would have the ability to review it each year.

“I won’t present it to the school board for approval until we’ve taken care of any of those school specific legal requirements and the requirements of the telecommunications act.


Seth Kinker

Reporter/Digital Media for The Sun Times News

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