Starting 23 years ago, two young men working to advance South Dakota broadband services met for breakfast before every SDN Communications board meeting. Newly hired SDN CEO Mark Shlanta and newly elected SDN Board President Bryan Roth found value in the face-to-face meetings to drive success for the young company.
As the relationship became more familiar, phone calls replaced breakfasts. And while those calls always involved work, in the recent waning days of their careers, the two men, then in their mid-50s, focused more intently on their personal strategies to live with cancer. Roth recalls the day Shlanta called him with the news in 2019.
“I remember it very well… Mark sharing so much information. He sent an image that showed the hot spots of cancer in his body,” Roth remembers. “We were different. He was willing to show. I left the diagnosis and details to my doctors.”
The two men had good-natured wagers on their fates.
“Our deal was that Mark couldn’t retire first. And I fully expected I would pass before him,” says Roth, who survived a cancer diagnosis 30 years ago and is a decade into another diagnosis.
They lost the bet. Shlanta left SDN at the end of 2021 and died on Feb. 23. Roth recently retired as CEO of TrioTel, a rural broadband provider based in Salem. He’s retiring from the SDN Board of Managers in May.
Like Shlanta, Roth’s cancer accelerated his departure, but he leaves proud of what he and Shlanta accomplished for the state’s broadband advancement.
At the helm of TrioTel, Roth pushed to be among the earliest South Dakota broadband companies to be 100% fiber-to-the-home and farm in its territory west of Sioux Falls. In addition to TrioTel, Roth also managed Interstate Telecommunications Cooperative of Clear Lake to help its fiber advancement. Completing those fiber projects for the two companies gave Roth focus to spend more time helping drive SDN’s growth.
“Most definitely a highlight. I loved being on that board,” Roth said.
Roth led SDN’s governance for 18 years, winning elections annually. He prides his tenure on investing in SDN’s growth, specifically its fiber footprint. Collectively with its 17 member companies, SDN operates a 50,0000-mile fiber-optic network, mostly in South Dakota but extending into seven surrounding states.
“From my perspective, our role as board members was more about helping SDN grow services,” Roth says.
Add in the board’s push for good customer service and valuable partnerships with businesses and governments, and Roth feels confident SDN’s future looks bright.
“Working with a great SDN employee team and the member companies, but also having the opportunity to provide a service that wasn’t readily available, and to provide it over a larger geographic area than my cooperative could… that is meaningful,” Roth says.
As Roth steps back from his career and takes a wider view of it, he’s most pleased with the relationships developed through SDN. He believes those local connections will continue to be a driver of the state’s independent broadband companies’ success in their service territories and statewide through SDN.
“We have a tight group throughout the state. We compromise. We create a team effort – take one for the team once in a while. And I think that made us and SDN stronger, too,” Roth says.