Rocket Fiber Lights Up Detroit With Gigabit

Detroit has its problems, for sure, but today high-speed Internet -- 10 Gigabit, to boot -- is no longer one of them thanks to a startup service provider called Rocket Fiber.

In the last two years, Internet and soon-to-be TV provider Rocket Fiber has trenched 17 miles of fiber to light up a city that had become a prime example of urban blight. At the peak of Detroit's troubles in 2013, half its street lights didn’t work and many buildings were abandoned -- and 56% of residents and 70% of students didn't have home Internet access. Now Rocket Fiber is starting to serve residents and businesses in the city with speeds most major cities are just dreaming about in an effort to turn those percentages around.

When talking about Detroit, the decline of the city and its ultimate bankruptcy in 2013, Randy Foster, CTO and Co-Founder of Rocket Fiber, told media and analyst audience at the Adtran Inc. (Nasdaq: ADTN) campus last week: "Internally we see the bankruptcy as a good pivotal changing point. Lots of good things can come from admitting you need to start afresh."

This includes the city's mindset change from an "us versus them" mentality to a push by leaders and residents to help save the city's institutions and move forward and transform the city, he said.

However, Foster admits the journey has not been easy. "We chose the hardest market for a startup."

Rocket Fiber is headquartered right in the city center of Detroit in what was once a derelict downtown. The downtown is in the process of a massive transformation with a central park called Campus Martius that transforms to a beach in the summer and an ice-staking rink in the winter, and many companies are moving their HQs back into the downtown, including MSX International, Rock Ventures, Rossetti, Quicken Loans and others.

Beachy Keen
Detroit's Campus Martius hosts a summer pop-up beach.
Detroit's Campus Martius hosts a summer pop-up beach.

What was once an auto manufacturing hub is trying to transform into a technology hub, but underlying infrastructure is key to making that happen, and what's most interesting here is that Rocket Fiber stepped in when the major service providers did not -- and it counts the city and the state as its customers.

This build-it-yourself trend is on the rise -- and all of the service providers that spoke at Adtran's event evidenced the shift. Start-ups, cities and even electrical co-ops are taking it upon themselves to provide high speed services to areas where major service providers are not -- and this in turn boosts competition in some cases. (See US Ignite Sets Stage for Smart Cities.)

"We're in the midst of a revolution in Detroit. Internet is the biggest part of that," said Foster. "There are a number of providers in Detroit but they are publicly traded organizations that didn't necessarily see the direction that [the city] was going. We built our service on three pillars – speed, service and Detroit."

Rocket Fiber's service offerings are based on the Google model, according to Foster. "Right now, we only offer one package and it's Gigabit to residences. Anything less than a gigabit would create a downgrade or an ecosystem where you split product tiers," he said. "And we think that creating an ecosystem where everybody has gigabit [is key]. For businesses, we only offer packages that are burstable Gig," he said, adding that TV services are next on the product list.

The company's network is built on Adtran's XGS passive optical networking (PON) fiber to the home (FTTH) solution because Foster said they wanted to be a technology leader rather than a follower. "We had the opportunity to build a brand new network and do it and take advantage of 10 Gig and PON," said Foster.

Two years ago the city wasn't even on the Gigabit cities map, but now that Rocket Fiber has launched its services, competition is on the rise, noted Foster. AT&T, Comcast and Lightspeed are now competing for the Detroit market. "What started out as just doing what made sense to us has also increased additional investment flowing in," said Foster.

The city population, which saw steep decline, is now forecast to double over the next four years, thanks to new residential buildings under construction, said Foster. "The units that come available are almost immediately occupied," he said. "We hope that we can be a catalyst that brings more companies, removes the Internet problem, and increases the connectivity and the infrastructure."

— Elizabeth Miller Coyne, Managing Editor, Light Reading

Kelsey Ziser 8/23/2016 | 9:34:00 AM
Re: Will they include wireless @daniel I think many would agree with you that it's more in the category of a utility now. Would be interesting to see if there's a correlation between increased Internet access in Detroit and graduation rates. I wonder how it's affecting the school system and student success.
jbtombes 8/22/2016 | 1:19:48 PM
Quicken HQ Just a quibble about timing - Quicken is not moving its HQ downtown. It did so in 2010, catalyzing the urban makeover or city in start-up mode that followed.
danielcawrey 8/22/2016 | 12:18:57 PM
Re: Will they include wireless Internet is certainly a key component to getting Detroit back on track. I think of it as electricity: That service was needed to expand industrial economies, and will need to do so with internet economies as well. 
Infostack 8/22/2016 | 10:36:35 AM
Re: Will they include wireless Karl,

All these are supply side solutions.  Nobody is completely thinking through how to clear nearly infinite demand side scenarios.  Settlement systems are needed.

KBode 8/22/2016 | 10:24:44 AM
Re: Will they include wireless I think most cities and ISPs will embrace a comination route of fiber, line of sight, and 5G tech to complement one another moving forward.
Infostack 8/22/2016 | 10:20:52 AM
Will they include wireless Now that Google has announced it will pursue fiber, will they go that route as well?
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