It was an exciting week for Rocket Fiber, as the team bringing high-speed Internet to the Motor City moved into their new home at 1505 Woodward Avenue in downtown Detroit.
Founded by Marc Hudson (CEO), Randy Foster (CTO) and Edi Demaj (COO), the company is dedicated to offering Internet speeds that are 100 times faster than what is currently available to both households and businesses.
I had the chance to sit down with Marc Hudson, to discuss what this technology means for the residents, economy and entrepreneurial future of Detroit.
What is fiber Internet and how does it work?
Some people might not realize it, but fiber Internet has actually been around for 30 or 40 years. It’s essentially a tube of glass that’s thinner than a strand of human hair with a laser at both ends that shoots through the glass on and off in a variety of colors. It sends bits, bytes and binary language across the fiber optics, rapidly faster than we could ever perceive or see.
Over the years, technology has made it so it’s moving so fast that fiber optics are the most advanced way of transmitting data today over long distances. We’re all used to having cable lines that are copper, but those are hitting the end of their life expectancy because it’s more expensive to maintain, uses electrical signals instead of light and is therefore subject to signal interference.
Fiber is cheaper to operate and is the technology of the future. The connection from the telephone pole to your home is traditionally copper – it’s what we call the last mile connection – and what Rocket Fiber is doing is making that last mile connection fiber optic, removing the bottleneck so you have a connection that is similar to the speed of the backbone of the Internet.
What are the benefits of fiber optic broadband?
It’s really about immediate gains in increased productivity – you can do more in less time, whether that’s downloading a movie, streaming rich media like Netflix, uploading files for work or school and more. Right now, files are mostly compressed due to bandwidth limitations in homes so the quality with fiber will be much better. That’s the current benefit. For the future, a lot of web technologies are going to be built and innovated on gigabit infrastructure. When we saw the change from dial up, YouTube, Pandora, and similar services emerged that couldn’t exist previously. Now, even more companies will come out of this gigabit revolution.
The inspiration happened when we were reading about Google Fiber in Kansas City. The early media coverage talked a lot about the entrepreneurial activity generated by it and particularly, that people were moving there from all over the country and that’s what we are trying to do here in Detroit. We have new ideas that can create new jobs and make this a tech and innovation hub. The only difference being we knew we would have to build it ourselves to make it a reality.
Randy and I have a software engineering background and Randy has network engineering experience. Edi works in the real estate and construction side of the house, so the three of our skill sets all bring something different to the table, which has been really important. I don’t think initially we thought we’d have a fiber company, we thought it would just happen because of the resources of where we worked (Quicken Loans/Bedrock Real Estate Services). The day I submitted the idea to the Cheese Factory (the Quicken Loans idea incubator), I thought my job was done and I could go back to software programming (laughing). We realized if we wanted to make it happen we were going to have to own it and take small steps for 2.5 years that led us to where we are today.
Is fiber Internet currently available in Michigan, and if so, who’s covered?
There are a few residential fiber Internet companies popping up around the state. Commercially it’s been available for years but it’s cost prohibitive for small businesses. Rocket Fiber will be working to make gigabit affordable for small businesses and the residential side as well.
What will Rocket Fiber mean for Detroit residents? Who will have access?
I think that Rocket Fiber is going to be a huge economic catalyst for the city. Plenty of jobs will be created; both by companies born in Detroit and from those who decide to move here to utilize this technology. It’s definitely going to allow people to do more from a productivity and lifestyle standpoint. Early on, we are launching in the Central Business District and Midtown and will expand outward from there. We are encouraging people to go RocketFiber.com and vote on where in the city we should go next. We want residents and businesses to play an active role in expanding our reach to the areas that need it and want it.
What effect could this have on the local economy?
In 2010, Chattanooga built one of the first large scale operations of fiber when their economy was suffering. Now, it seems like every building in their downtown is renovated or in the process of it, similar to what’s going on here, and a lot of people say it was the tipping point for their economy to move forward. Fast Internet and the reliability of smart grid technology have attracted large and medium-sized companies to relocate there.
Here in Detroit, Rocket Fiber will make it possible for more people to find jobs, especially ones that allow you to work from home that might even be based in other states. If we are able to get people fast and reliable Internet, it becomes a job creation tool.
It’s also easy to obtain. We will offer Internet and cable for a monthly fee, eliminating the need for multiple providers like Detroiters have now. We’ll hook up your home or business and you’ll have a client support team dedicated to helping you.
States across the country are interested in this technology, but what are some of the barriers to obtaining fiber Internet and what can people do about it?
It’s capital intensive to build a fiber network – you typically have an existing provider that owns the market and will ride this infrastructure for as long as they can until they’re forced to compete and update it. It’s about getting providers the capital plus there are regulatory, legal and municipal level hurdles. Government roadblocks, attaching poles, TV agreements, construction permits, and more can present challenges. That’s why I think there are only a handful of companies that are doing this.
Municipalities are often reaching out to companies who can build it or in Chattanooga’s case, the utility company built their own. When they were installing smart meters on homes to gauge usage, they realized they could add fiber and get gigabit activity to the area. From a population standpoint, I don’t even think a million people have access to this technology yet. Contacting your local government is a great first step.
What is the most exciting thing about Rocket Fiber that you want Detroit to know about?
It’s just a story about Detroit really going from last place in terms of infrastructure to first place. A lot of cities have companies coming in and doing it but we didn’t have that so we made our own opportunity. No one was willing to step up and give Detroit this infrastructure so it was created by folks who live and work here. We will deliver a better product and experience because it’s part of a bigger mission.
What’s also exciting is that we are hiring for everything from client care to installation technicians, network engineers, creative folks, accountants and more. Head to RocketFiber.com/Careers for more information.