I’ve written about Starry several times since they first tried to launch in 2016. Their first market launch was a failure and it seems that the technology of beaming broadband to windows in apartment units never worked as planned. Since then the company has regrouped and now is using a business plan of connecting to the roofs of apartment buildings using millimeter wave radio. This is the same business plan pursued by Webpass, which was purchased by Google, although the technology and spectrum are different.
Starry was founded by Chet Kanojia who was also the founder of Aereo – the company that tried to deliver affordable local programming in cities through a wireless connection. Starry originally launched in Boston but has recently added Los Angeles, New York City, Denver, and Washington, D.C.
Starry is still advertising a simple product set – $50 per month for 200 Mbps symmetrical broadband. There’s a $50 install fee and then no add-ons or extra charges on top of the $50 rate. This easily beats the prices of the big cable companies or of Verizon FiOS. Starry is likely filling a competitive void in New York City where Verizon has still failed to connect broadband to thousands of high rises and millions of potential subscribers.
Starry is advertising ease of use along with low prices. Once a building is added to the Starry network they promise to install a customer at a scheduled time rather than providing a 4-6 hour window like their landline competition. Their web site doesn’t discuss the technology used to reach buildings, but it says they use existing building wiring. G.Fast is likely being used to deliver the technology over telephone wiring inside the building since there is no easy way to share coaxial cable if a customer is still buying cable TV. That would also explain how they can promise fast hook-ups since every unit in a high rise would typically already have telephone wiring.
Starry may be planning for faster speeds in the future since they were one of the largest buyers of spectrum in the 2019 auction for 24 GHz spectrum. Starry still advertises that they use phased-array antennas. This technology allows a single antenna radiator to transmit at different phases of the same frequency. This is one of the easiest ways to ‘steer’ the direction of the signal and Starry uses this technology to accomplish beamforming. What that means in a busy urban environment is that Starry can deliver more bandwidth to a rooftop than a traditional transmitter antenna.
Interestingly, the company doesn’t claim to be delivering 5G, as is every other wireless provider. This should provide a good example, that millimeter wave spectrum does not automatically equate to 5G. Starry says they are still using the simpler and cheaper 802.11 WiFi standards within the broadband path.
MoffettNathanson recently said they were bullish on the Starry model. Even though the company currently has a relatively small number if customers, their goal of chasing 30% of the urban high-rise market seems credible to the analysts. Starry’s technology can deliver broadband all across an urban downtown from one or two big tower transmitters. That contrasts with Verizon’s 5G technology that delivers fast bandwidth from small cells that must be within 1,000 feet of a home. MoffettNathanson did caution that Starry’s business plan is likely not replicable in the suburbs or smaller towns – but there are a lot of potential customers sitting in high rises in the urban centers of the country.
This kind of competition adds a lot of pressure on other ISPs wanting to serve large apartment buildings in downtown areas. Verizon found the gaining entry to buildings was their key stumbling block in gaining access to buildings in Manhattan, which resulted in the company badly violating their agreement with the City to bring FiOS to everybody. A wireless company like Starry can leap over the long list of impediments that make it hard to bring wires into urban high rises – and low prices for good broadband ought to be an interesting competitive alternative for a lot of people.