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Inside the bold plan to bring gigabit fiber to Detroit

Colin Neagle | June 30, 2015
When discussing the ongoing revitalization efforts in Detroit, it's hard to miss the name Dan Gilbert. The founder of Quicken Loans, owner of the Cleveland Cavaliers, and a Detroit native himself, Gilbert's investment firms have funded dozens of tech startups in the city and turned its defunct old buildings into shiny new workspaces that look like Silicon Valley transplants.

"Where it works is we get the synergy that [comes from] working with an organization to get access agreements, to get into the buildings, especially when you only have to sign one access agreement and you have access to the 70-plus properties that that organization has," Foster says.

Access to buildings has been a serious challenge for others in the broadband market. Earlier this month, when the city of New York released an audit that alleged Verizon had failed to meet an agreement to build out its fiber-based FiOS service throughout the city, Verizon claimed the primary reason it hadn't reached every customer was that landlords and property owners had prevented it from building the network out to certain buildings. Rock Ventures' control of so much real estate helps Rocket Fiber avoid an obstacle that has tripped up even the largest ISPs in the country.

Another important factor in Rocket Fiber's early growth stemmed from a unique challenge in laying fiber in Detroit. The city lacks accurate records on what was built underground in its metropolitan downtown area over the years, so rather than risk a construction disaster, downtown Detroit has a moratorium on constructional boring. Traditionally, this meant that a company laying fiber would have to dig a "macro-trench," a hole in the street about two-feet wide and up to four-feet deep, a labor-intensive and costly process that Foster says can only accommodate about 800 feet of fiber in a day.

Instead, Rocket Fiber embraced a process called "micro-trenching," a more efficient process that has been tested in several areas and which Verizon used in New York in 2013 to replace copper equipment damaged during Hurricane Sandy. Micro-trenching only requires cutting a hole only from three-quarters of an inch to one-inch wide and just 10-inches deep. Foster estimates that it enables the company to cover between 1,200 to 1,500 feet in a day at about one third of the cost of macro-trenching.

The benefits of a more efficient process for laying fiber have a broader impact on the city as a whole.

"After they come by with the cut and they cut this one-inch wide hole, you can allow traffic to drive over the top of it even before they restore or fill it with the fillers and restore it to the surface level," Foster says. "So it's far less impactful to the city to allow this to happen."

More than anything else, though, Foster says Rocket Fiber is relying on its relationship with the community. He says it's not a matter of if, but when the incumbent ISPs challenge them with similarly priced gigabit services, as they have in cities like Kansas City, Kansas, or Chattanooga, Tennessee, where Google Fiber or municipal broadband projects have forced their hand. While he acknowledges that there will always be customers who will choose the lower-cost deal, Foster says the broadband market is in need of an offering that focuses on what major ISPs largely ignore customer service. Nationwide, ISPs are widely regarded as the worst-performing organizations in customer service. Rocket Fiber aims to set itself apart by being the rare local ISP that can focus all of its resources on the one region it serves.


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