Starry Coming to Columbus, Ohio

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.

2 thoughts on “Starry Coming to Columbus, Ohio

  1. Douglas, your explanation of TDD is not accurate. TDD does not allow simultaneous upload and downloads in the same spectrum, quite the opposite. TDD allows for upload time slots to be synchronized so that all upload is happening simultaneously, preventing self-interference from a “hidden node”. It looks like Starry looks like an exciting business model; I mainly think their Urban Rooftop to Rooftop Cable alternative over Millimeter Spectrum is forward-thinking. However, given my years of experience building WISP in rural markets, I am dubious about the ability of a company to deliver possible services in the suburbs covered in the foliage while not having access to significant spectrum. Starry also won several Rural locations in RDOF promising 1000/500 wireless, and I feel that will be unlikely. FWA has been and will continue to be an excellent tool in many areas, but without large ranges of unencumbered mid-band spectrum, the challenges faced at scale will almost always lead to a degraded experience.

    • Starry says its special sauce is somehow using TDD to share one spectrum band in both direction. This is not traditional TDD, but something that Chet Kanojia has cooked up, I guess.

      I agree with you about the use of this technology on wooded residential streets. I think we’ll find companies like Starry cherry picking neighborhoods where this works and ignoring other ones where it won’t. It’s still a cheap marketing launch if they can market to 20% or 30% of the passings in a market like Columbus and suburbs. This is a city with a lot of trees and perhaps they picked it for this reason – to see what can be achieved before a larger launch.

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