A chance meeting in a bar introduced Richard Laing into the world of Internet service providers. Courtesy Stellar Broadband
The founder and president of Stellar Broadband, recently renamed from SpartanNet, has been in the industry long enough to recall when less than two megabits were considered broadband internet. Now Richard Laing delivers up to 10 gigs for residents and businesses in West Michigan, East Lansing, and beyond.
Laing, a former small-town hosier from Henryville, Indiana, went to Indiana University for two years before moving to the University of Dayton.
“(I was) a young child who didn’t really know his way,” said Laing. “I had the opportunity to complete an accelerated apprenticeship program for the construction of plastic injection molds.”
Despite spending two years in the program, Laing hated his first job in mold making.
“It wasn’t really what I expected, but I was technical,” said Laing. “I was technical enough that I was more interested in this aspect than the metal filings and the lube and this side of it.”
Around 1998, Laing was working as a bartender to make ends meet when he met some employees at an Internet service provider called Darwin Networks in Louisville, Kentucky. The start-up operated at a time when dial-up Internet was still the standard.
“These guys gave 1.54MB to a community of 1,200 homes, and that was fast bandwidth,” Laing said. “That was what they considered ‘broadband’ in 1998 and that was pretty advanced for me.”
Organization: Stellar broadband
Position: Co-founder and President
Place of birth: Henryville, Indiana
Family: Wife and twin children
Business / social engagement: Broadband task force for the townships of Bath and Victor, 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 met with a group of college friends about to switch from mechanical engineering to IT, supporting 6,000 apartment and student housing communities from a company that decided to get out of business.
Darwin Networks provided business, hospitality, and apartment building Internet services and IT support. Laing was one of the first employees to be hired for the company’s operations center, where he looked after the housing stock.
At the time, virtually all of the Internet was running on Cisco hardware, and Darwin Networks enabled Laing to participate in groundbreaking new networks for apartment complexes across the United States, starting from a small network operations center in Louisville.
“I went to school to do mechanics, but I switched to networking almost immediately,” said Laing. “I found that a lot more appealing and spent the first six months of my career networking to learn as hard as possible. I learned the Cisco system language. I was lucky enough to work in a technologically very dynamic environment. “
However, Darwin Networks did not survive the bursting of the dot-com bubble of 2000-2001, suddenly leaving all of its apartment customers without an ISP.
“I think (Darwin) just got over her ski tips,” said Laing. “You couldn’t stand up. You had a lot of money. Your return on investment was not good. They just got too big. “
Laing said he was one of the last employees to leave Darwin Networks, largely because he was the founder of all of the company’s residential 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’s collapse, Laing teamed up with other industry experts to create another internet service provider called Noment, which acquired some bankruptcy assets from Darwin to keep the internet going for all of its former residential customers.
Laing also built a new network operations center in New Albany, Indiana. As Noment continued to expand, serving approximately 12,000 units in the United States, the company eventually merged with another company to form Fusion Broadband, headquartered in Champaign, Illinois.
Laing didn’t really want to move to Champaign. His biggest client at Noment was DTN Management Company in East Lansing and he was inspired by what the company did. He had helped shape the company network from the start and got to know the company owner well.
DTN was working at the time to build a private network in the East Lansing community by building its own fiber and connecting it to Michigan State University, essentially building the university network and expanding it into the housing market.
“I thought that would be a pretty nice thing,” said Laing. “So I left Noment / Fusion Net and came to East Lansing to support SpartanNet.”
In the beginning, SpartanNet was only an extension of the MSU network and therefore only accessible to MSU students, although non-students also lived in apartments on campus that needed the Internet. The company eventually ended its relationship with the university to build its own network that could serve anyone.
SpartanNet initially looked after around 1,400 homes and was exclusive to DTN communities in East Lansing. As the lead developer of the SpartanNet network, Laing said it would be easy to upgrade the network from 100MB – the standard in 2002 – to 1GB of Internet service in 2004.
“Nobody else was really delivering full gigabit ethernet at the time,” said Laing.
Over time, SpartanNet has expanded its network by partnering with the major real estate developers in East Lansing and other national groups building homes in the area, while adding services to its portfolio.
“So I’m offering internet services and I’m building a building management network within the community, but they said, ‘I need security systems. Can you build this here? ‘ So we started building IP security networks. “I need an access and access control network, so we would build an access and access control network,” said Laing. “The need for all of this has somehow expanded to include the needs of the community.”
SpartanNet also added DirecTV to its services. Although it is gradually being eclipsed by online streaming, cable TV was a big deal 10 years ago, Laing said, and SpartanNet wanted to complement its gigabit internet service with the TV service, which had the most HD channels at the time.
“When I did that for the first time, we switched the televisions worth 1,400 apartments to DirecTV within three months,” said Laing. “Then all these students came into our room to set up DirecTV and it was horrible … I had never worked so hard in my life.”
Laing immediately began developing software to automate the installation process. When a customer orders DirecTV through SpartanNet, the company automatically turns it on, sets up billing, and sends them direct messages about their new service.
Because of the amount of activations that SpartanNet was doing, and because Laing had developed his own automation software, he was noticed by DirecTV at the corporate level. The company invited Laing to join its national advisory board, where he would meet with executives to discuss and refine the process.
“We’ve influenced that to the point that they’ve developed a better product under the DirecTV umbrella to actually sell it to these shared apartments,” Laing said. “Even though people are still streaming, I think they are looking for the ease. They want it to be convenient and easy … so we were able to develop this better type of student dorm distribution under the DirecTV label. “
About five years ago, the company began building a network in Grand Rapids to offer the same services. The company’s data center has been in Grand Rapids for over four years, and the company has since expanded across West Michigan.
As a resident of Laingsburg, a city he consciously chose, Laing says he feels that the circle has come full circle.
“I found this city. I married a local from Laingsburg, and interestingly, this town feels just like Henryville, Indiana, ”Laing said with a laugh. “It was a much better choice for me than being in Champaign, Illinois.”