The founder and president of Stellar Broadband, recently rebranded from SpartanNet, has been in the industry long enough to remember when less than two megabits was considered broadband internet. Now, Richard Laing is delivering up to 10 Gigs for residents and businesses in West Michigan, East Lansing and beyond.
A former small-town Hoosier from Henryville, Indiana, Laing went to Indiana University for two years before he transitioned to the University of Dayton.
“(I was) a young kid who didn’t really know his way,” Laing said. “I had an opportunity to do an accelerated journeyman program to build plastic-injection molds.”
Despite spending two years in the program, Laing hated his first mold-building job.
“It was not really what I was expecting it to be, but I was technical,” Laing said. “I was technical enough that I, kind of, gravitated to that aspect of it more than the metal shavings and lube and that side of it.”
Around 1998, Laing was bartending to make ends meet when he met some employees from an internet service provider called Darwin Networks in Louisville, Kentucky. The start-up company was doing progressive work at a time when dial-up internet was still the standard.
“These guys were doing 1.54 MB to a community of 1,200 apartments, and that was fast bandwidth,” Laing said. “That was what they considered ‘broadband’ in 1998, and to me that was pretty progressive.”
Organization: Stellar Broadband
Position: Co-founder and president
Birthplace: Henryville, Indiana
Family: Wife and twin children
Business/Community Involvement: Broadband taskforce for Bath and Victor townships, member of AT&T’s National Advisory Council, DIRECTV Dealer of the Year 2019 National Award for the first in-building deployment of 10GPON and Wi-Fi
Biggest Career Break: When I connected with a group of college friends to move from mechanical engineering to IT and support 6,000 multifamily and student housing communities from a company that decided to get out of the business.
Darwin Networks provided internet service for commercial, hospitality and multifamily clients, as well as IT support. Laing was one of the first people to be hired for the company’s operations center, where he was responsible for dealing with the apartment portfolio.
At the time, virtually the entire internet was running on Cisco hardware, and through Darwin Networks, Laing got to participate in pioneering new networks for apartment complexes all throughout the U.S. running out of a small network operations center in Louisville.
“I went to school to do mechanical, but I shifted into networking almost right away,” Laing said. “I found that to be much more appealing, and I spent the first six months of my career in networking just studying as hard as I could. I learned the Cisco systems language. I was lucky enough to be working in an environment that was pretty vibrant in regard to the technology.”
Darwin Networks did not survive the dot-com bubble burst of 2000-2001, however, suddenly leaving all of its apartment clients without an ISP.
“I think (Darwin) just got over their ski tips,” Laing said. “They couldn’t deploy. They had a bunch of money. Their return on investment wasn’t doing well. They just got too big.”
Laing said he was one of the last employees to walk out of Darwin Networks, mostly because he was the originator of all of the company’s apartment networks, but because of that, he ended up developing the first plug-and-play network, which he said is now the standard in internet service.
After Darwin folded, Laing partnered with other industry professionals to create another internet service provider called Noment, which acquired some bankruptcy assets from Darwin to keep the internet running for all of its former apartment clients.
Laing also built a new network operations center in New Albany, Indiana. As Noment continued to expand, servicing approximately 12,000 units across the U.S., the company ended up merging with another company to create Fusion Broadband, based in Champaign, Illinois.
Laing didn’t really want to move to Champaign. His largest customer working at Noment was DTN Management Company in East Lansing, and he felt inspired by what the company was doing. He had engineered the company’s network from the beginning and had gotten to know the owner of the company well.
DTN at the time was working to build a private network within the East Lansing municipality by putting up its own fiber and attaching it to Michigan State University, essentially creating the university network and expanding it out to the residential market.
“I thought that was a pretty neat thing to do,” Laing said. “So, I ended up exiting out of Noment/Fusion Net and came to East Lansing to stand up SpartanNet.”
SpartanNet in the beginning was exclusively an extension of the MSU network, thereby only available to MSU students, even though there were non-students living in apartments on campus who needed internet. The company ended up closing its relationship with the university to set up its own network, which could service anyone.
SpartanNet initially serviced about 1,400 apartments and was exclusive to DTN communities in East Lansing. As the chief builder of SpartanNet’s network, Laing said it was easy to upgrade the network from 100 MB — the standard in 2002 — to 1 GB internet service in 2004.
“Nobody else was really delivering full-gigabit ethernet at the time,” Laing said.
Over time, SpartanNet continued to expand its network by partnering with the major real estate developers in East Lansing and other national groups that were building apartments in the area, while also adding services to its portfolio.
“So I’m delivering internet services, and I’m building a building management network within the community, but they were like, ‘I need security systems. Can you build that here?’ So, we started building IP security networks. ‘I need an entry and access control network,’ so we would build an entry and access control network,” Laing said. “The need for all of that just, kind of, expanded to the need of the community.”
SpartanNet also expanded its services to include DirecTV. Although it’s gradually becoming eclipsed by online streaming, 10 years ago, cable television was a big deal, Laing said, and SpartanNet wanted to complement its gigabit internet service with the TV service that had the most HD channels at the time.
“The first time I did this, we converted 1,400 apartments’ worth of television to DirecTV in three months,” Laing said. “Then we had all these students coming into our space to get set up with DirecTV, and it was horrible … I’d never worked so hard in my life.”
Laing immediately started developing software to automate the installation process. If a customer were to order DirecTV through SpartanNet, the company would automatically turn it on, set up billing and send them direct messages regarding their new service.
Because of the volume of activations SpartanNet was doing, and because Laing had built his own automation software, he was noticed by DirecTV at the corporate level. The company invited Laing to participate in its national advisory council, where he would meet with leaders to discuss and refine the process.
“We have since influenced that to the point where they have created a better product under the DirecTV umbrella to actually sell to these apartment communities,” Laing said. “Even though people are still streaming, I think they are looking for the ease. They want it to be convenient and simple … so we were able to craft this better way of distributing that for student housing under the DirecTV label.”
About five years ago, the company started building a network in Grand Rapids to offer those same types of services. The company data center has been located in Grand Rapids for over four years, and the company has since expanded throughout West Michigan.
Now a resident of Laingsburg, a town he picked out deliberately, Laing said he feels like he’s come full circle.
“I found this town. I married a local Laingsburg native, and interestingly enough, this town feels just like Henryville, Indiana,” Laing said, laughing. “It was a much better choice for me than to be in Champaign, Illinois.”