I’ve been predicting for several years that wireless broadband is coming to metropolitan areas. There are several factors aligning to support this trend. Most importantly, there have been big advances in millimeter-wave radios that can bring decent broadband. Second, DSL is clearly on the way out – in fact, AT&T will no longer install DSL or even copper voice customers. Finally, the big cable companies feel that they’ve won the broadband battle and are flexing their monopoly power by aggressively raising rates – both Comcast and Charter are on a path to have $100 broadband in just a few years. These factors leave a void for an ISP with low prices and decent broadband.
Perhaps the splashiest wireless company to tackle the market niche is Starry. The company is owned by Chet Kanojia, who you may remember as the founder of Aereo, which was trying to offer a cheap alternative to local programming.
Starry has been operating for several years by beaming gigabit broadband to high-rise apartment buildings in Boston, New York City, Washington D.C., Denver, and Los Angeles. In those markets, Starry has been offering broadband using the 37 GHz spectrum band through a market test license from the FCC.
Starry offers an interesting broadband product. The company always posts its speeds on its website, and as I wrote this article, the average speed for Starry customers is 204 Mbps download and 201 Mbps upload – an attractive product in today’s market. The company offers low prices – in current markets, the price is $50 per month with no contracts, no connect fee, and no gimmicks. The company also provides 24/7 live customer service.
Starry is ready to roll out the next generation of millimeter-wave technology and has chosen Columbus, Ohio as the first market. Rather than offer broadband only to high-rise apartments, the wireless technology will be available to everybody from high-rises to single-family homes and will cover downtown and stretch into nearby suburbs.
Starry is taking advantage of radios that can bounce signals from one customer to the next. This creates a neighborhood mesh network around each base transmitter. Starry also is deploying Time Division Duplex (TDD), which handles upload and download bandwidth differently than other ISPs. With TDD, there are both download and upload timeslots built automatically into the transmission path. This allows a single frequency and channel to handle both upload and download functions simultaneously. One user in a household can be downloading while somebody else uploads at the same time using a single frequency channel. The Starry technology will further vary the number of upload or download time slots depending upon demand.
Because of the TDD technology, the Starry home receiver is a sophisticated piece of electronics and not a simple receiver. When Starry first launched, the cost of the receiver was nearly $500 but is now approaching $200.
Starry will be launching in Columbus with a $25 introductory price for early adopters but will likely get back soon to a standard $50 rate. Starry has big plans to eventually pass up to 40 million urban households. Starry also won $268.9 million in the RDOF grants to bring broadband to over 100,000 rural homes, with a network that will be a hybrid of both fiber and fixed wireless.
Starry will be the first splashy wireless company to hit urban markets, but it won’t be the last. There is a solid market in every city for decently priced broadband with decent speeds. There are folks in every market who want an alternative to the big cable companies, and wireless technology is poised to fill the niche being vacated by DSL. Expect to hear a lot more from Starry and from others that start popping up in urban markets.