You might remember Starry as the ISP that announced it was going to offer wireless broadband in Boston at the beginning of 2016. At the time the company began advertising and selling window receivers. But then the company went silent and just recently reemerged with an announcement that it’s ready to finally go into business.
Starry is founded by Chet Kanojia, the founder of Aereo. That company tried to wirelessly transmit local TV signals to subscribers but got shut down through a series of court challenges. But Kanojia is back now and ready to tackle the major ISPs with a competitive broadband product.
The company claims that it is going to be able to beam a 200 Mbps broadband connection for up to two miles from a transmitter (although the signal at the end of that distance probably won’t be that strong). Starry has opted to use the 802.11ac standard and is transmitting using the licensed 37 – 38.6 GHz frequency. The company has plans to upgrade soon to the new 802.11ax standard.
This frequency is licensed from the FCC in two ways. First, there is going to be one nationwide license for the 37 – 37.6 GHz bands that will be coordinated to share under the nationwide frequency holder, and that is likely to be used for mobile broadband. The rest of the frequency will be licensed to up to five license holders for each PEA (Partial Economic Area). These are geographic footprints of relatively the same size and there are 416 covering the whole country.
This same frequency is now also available for mobile broadband and it’s expected that 5G providers will grab a lot of the licenses in metropolitan areas where there is enough density to justify a 5G mobile data application.
The Starry deployment will need to deploy multiple transmitters in a given geographic area if they want to reach most of the customers. For instance, a transmitter than can only see the east side of a building won’t be able to serve somebody on the west side. And metropolitan areas also have a lot of wireless shadows where a taller building will hide transmissions to shorter buildings behind it.
The company still plans to deploy this network using receivers placed in a window. That will allow them to avoid issues involved with getting landlord permission or of serving a building with one transmitter and then somehow wiring to get to customers (the Webpass business model).
The company’s website is promoting a 200 Mbps connection for $50 per month, with no monthly usage cap and with no gimmicks or additional fees. This will include the customer receivers. The company says its receiver costs $150 and the customer CPE costs $200 – $220, with needed equipment included in the customer monthly price.
Starry is already operating in its test-bed market of Boston and announced new beta test deployments in Los Angeles and Washington DC. It says it plans to expand offerings by the end of the year to Atlanta, Chicago, Cleveland, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Houston, Indianapolis, Miami, Minneapolis, New York City, Philadelphia, San Francisco and Seattle. I’ve seen a few analysts wondering where the company will get the money needed for a widespread deployment.
The technology is best suited to densely populated areas in order to maximize the number of potential customers that can be reached by the relatively short 2-mile radius from a given transmitter.
This technology won’t be easy for others to copy. At least for a while its unlikely that smaller ISPs are going to easily be able to obtain the licensed spectrum that Starry is using. Starry has also developed its own proprietary electronics, much like Kanojia did for Aereo. Maybe more importantly, the other big wireless companies are pursuing the 5G standard rather than the WiFi standard, meaning that Starry might be one of the few companies pursuing this using WiFi. Without frequency and equipment it’s going to be hard for others to copy this.
A competitive wireless product at $50 per month is going to bring real competition to urban ISPs. We’ve just recently seen Comcast raise the rates for standalone broadband to $75 and we’ll have to see how companies like Starry and new 5G competitors affect the big ISPs and their pricing. The one big drawback for Starry and other 5G providers might be the lack of a cable offering and the rest of the traditional bundle. While it’s easy to think that cable is a dying product, 75% of the homes in the country still have a traditional cable subscription. These wireless products are aimed at cord cutters and we’ll just have to see how much of the market is ready to make that leap to standalone broadband at a lower price. I know I’d try it!