A modem’s squeal, long distance and smartphones chart 20 years of broadband growth under SDN’s CEO

July 25, 2018

This paid piece is sponsored by SDN Communications.

By Vernon Brown, vice president of marketing and member relations

A 20-year look back at technology reveals generations of change at SDN Communications. Remember 1998’s deafening squeal of dial-up internet modems? How about long distance?

Personal cellphones like the Nokia 6130 would barely qualify as a “dumb” phone by today’s standards.

Those vintage technologies consumed the attention of SDN’s new technical planning and operations director Mark Shlanta when he first walked in the front door on July 17, 1998. Two years later, he ascended to CEO and put the small company on one of the fastest growth trajectories in the region. Under his leadership, SDN:

  • Increased revenue twelvefold.
  • Grew infrastructure value by 824 percent.
  • Boosted employment from 14 to 165 employees.
  • Expanded into three Sioux Falls office buildings, plus offices in Pierre and Rapid City.
  • Built two data centers.
  • Transformed data delivery from the common 56K circuit to 100-plus gigabytes.

Change at that speed requires vision, good partnerships and a steady hand of leadership. Mark delivers all three.


Long before the federal government coined the phrase “anchor institutions,” Mark convinced SDN’s board of managers to connect hospitals, schools, libraries and town halls to fiber.

“Someday they will need a higher level of connectivity,” he said.

When the Great Recession hit, he escalated the timeline for reaching unserved communities through the stimulus package’s 2008 Broadband Technology Opportunity Program grant, which required a $5 million SDN match at a time when businesses that had cash sat on it.


Mark forms relationships easily. He exudes authenticity, which yields trust. It has served him well with SDN’s board and has expanded SDN into southern Minnesota. Three years ago, the independent telephone companies covering the southern one-third of that state asked SDN to interconnect their seven networks. They took note of the advanced technology and sales South Dakota companies enjoyed under Mark’s leadership.

Whether it’s at national conferences, universities or the halls of Congress, others see Mark as a technologist and futurist.


His quiet manner hasn’t gone unnoticed in the community either. The Boy Scouts of America Sioux Council, Holy Spirit Catholic Church, the Sioux Falls Catholic Schools Board of Education, Xcel Energy, Avera Health, the Sioux Falls Development Foundation and Forward Sioux Falls all sought and benefit from his service.

Twenty years atop any organization might age a lesser CEO. Not Mark. Sure, his hair might be grayer, and he shaved off the mustache about five years ago, but his outlook changed little in two decades. While he’s quick to adopt technological change, some employees might wish he had readily adopted other 1998 trends such as:

  • The untucked shirt coming into vogue. No, Mark never embraced that.
  • Casual Fridays, which started with another engineer: Bill Gates. Mark allows it for employees, but that’s just another fashion trend he has averted. Some of our employees think he mows the lawn in slacks and tie!

Business attire aside, SDN employees are thankful Mark is a technology trendsetter. That has helped SDN grow and deliver on its brand promise: Reliable Broadband Provider, Cybersecurity Leader.

Take the words bookended in that brand promise and they also define Mark: Reliable Leader.

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A modem’s squeal, long distance and smartphones chart 20 years of broadband growth under SDN’s CEO

Since 1998, revenue has grown twelvefold and staff went from 14 to 165 employees. Two decades — and a shave — later, SDN Communications CEO Mark Shlanta is celebrating 20 years of technological innovation.

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