Since its founding in 2001, East Lansing-based Stellar Broadband (formerly Spartan Internet) has grown to service nearly 150 Michigan communities with high-speed 1-gigabit internet service. While the speed is increasingly expected to be the norm for residential and commercial broadband internet, Stellar has already leveraged its fiber optic network to offer 10-gigabit ultra high speeds in some areas. Early next year, the company plans to unveil a new data center in downtown Grand Rapids that will support 10-gigabit growth on the west side of the state. Company founder, President and COO Richard Laing recently discussed these growth plans and how federal stimulus funding will support even further growth into rural underserved communities.
What are your priorities and growth strategies for 2022?
Obviously, we’re seeing broadband adoption increase rapidly. People’s homes and lives are transitioning from an analog to a digital lifestyle. Everything and everyone will be connected at that point. We’re helping push everyone into affordable and dependable broadband services, especially rural communities, which we see as unserved or underserved. We’re expecting that to change. Stellar’s priorities are to help make that transition and what we’re trying to do is help these rural communities close that digital divide.
How do you ensure the affordability side of
providing these services?
I think it’s going to fall down (with help from) some of the federal infrastructure bill. The state and federal governments are there to assist on the affordability aspect of it. What we’re seeing now is that rural townships and communities aren’t service providers. The CARES Act and infrastructure bill will assist townships with these problems. When that happens, we’ll see communities seek out public-private partnerships and joint ventures to solve that problem. When you do that, it should bring these service levels to affordable rates.
Stellar provides services in various places in West Michigan. Are you planning any expansion in Grand Rapids?
We are actively doing it right now and are placing a new data center in downtown Grand Rapids that should be operational around February. We have a new presence there, and we’re committed to Grand Rapids. Now we have the ability to expand our ultra high-speed service throughout the community.
What distinguishes Stellar from giant providers like AT&T and Comcast?
I’d say we’re a little more nimble, we are closer to the customers’ needs. We can customize our service to be more of what our customers need. We want to give exemplary, ultra high-speed service and our goal is to go straight to the top. We want to take all of our service levels to the highest speeds available at the time with our technology.
Stellar was recognized for providing 10-gigabit internet at an East Lansing housing development. What kind of a leap is that kind of internet speed, and where does it signal the industry’s heading?
We’ve been doing 1-gigabit service for 15 years, and were the first in Michigan to be delivering that from a residential perspective. It’s a great service level, it’s high speed and it’s becoming a lot more prevalent with other service providers. That’s why two years ago we pivoted and are going to a 10-gigabit service to be the norm.
The leap is that everything is transitioning now to become more high performance and more connected. With these (10-gigabit) speeds, you’re preparing for the future, or future-proofing for that.
What does Michigan need to improve accessibility and equity when it comes to broadband internet?
The COVID-19 pandemic just shed light on how the digital divide and digital deserts separate the haves and the have nots and the disparity of homes connected to broadband service. By reaching out to these rural communities, remote working and online learning just skyrocketed. It exposed the dire need to have it, and if you don’t, you are the have nots. Taking advantage of and putting the federal stimulus money to work in these communities should bring these service levels up and make it more affordable.
Aside from just the surge in connectedness and demand for the internet, what have been the biggest shifts in the broadband space since you founded the company 20 years ago?
What we’ve always done is built the network on fiber optics because we just felt that fiber means endless bandwidth. Even if today’s requirement is 1 gigabit, tomorrow’s is 10 then up to 40, 100 and 250: Our infrastructure that we installed from the beginning is up for the demand. We’re focused primarily on fiber optic-driven networks, and we see that’s going to become the de facto standard when copper networks are no longer able to keep up with demand.