Starry recently announced that it was defaulting on all of its $269 million of RDOF funding. Starry was the ninth-largest winner of the RDOF reverse auction that ended in December 2020. The FCC approved some of the Starry RDOF claims in August.
There have been other defaults of RDOF, but no others of this magnitude. For example, in the same announcement of the Starry default were additional defaults by Cal.net and GeoLinks. There were a lot of defaults in the spring of 2021 when winners defaulted on small pockets of Census blocks that weren’t large enough for a coherent business plan.
Starry is not required to disclose why it’s defaulting. In the many articles about the RDOF default, there was a lot of speculation that the company doesn’t have the needed funding to complete the required builds. Starry reported 77,400 customers at the end of the second quarter of this year – gaining 14,300 customers in the quarter. The company claimed that it now passes 5.7 million potential customers. But the company has a big burn rate with a loss for the quarter of $33.9 million plus capital expenditures of $20.8 million.
Even if funding is the issue, funding wouldn’t yet be an emergency for Starry. An RDOF winner has three years starting with the year after the awards – in this case until 2025, to cover 40% of the RDOF areas. But delaying the cancellation probably risks increasing fines from the FCC.
I’ve also heard speculation from engineers that Starry might not have been happy with the performance of its technology in rural areas. It seems like a technology best suited to areas with decent household density. The technology being deployed can best be described as a wireless mesh network. Starry brings broadband into a neighborhood and then bounces signal from customer to customer to extend the reach of the network. Over time as the company gets more customers, it can blanket a large coverage area. This is a drastically different approach than the FWA cellular wireless deployments that reply on putting a small cell site in every served neighborhood – most of them fed by fiber. The Starry deployment should need fewer fiber-fed hubs and theoretically would have a lower cost deployment.
In June 2021, Starry announced a deployment across the Columbus, Ohio metropolitan area. But there is a big difference between the densely populated suburbs of Columbus, Ohio and rural areas in RDOF where homes might not be within sight of neighbors. There are plenty of engineers that are still skeptical of wireless plans using tall towers to bring fast speeds to rural areas. It’s even hard to imagine doing it with a mesh network.
With the default, all of the RDOF areas are back in play for other federal grants. Unfortunately for the customers in these areas that thought they had a broadband solution coming, they now need another ISP to step up and claim grant funding of some sort to bring broadband.
As can be seen on the map below of the Starry award areas, the company had claimed sizable service areas in Alabama, Arizona, Mississippi, Missouri, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Virginia.
Starry’s default is different than the recent action by the FCC to toss the RDOF awards to LTD Broadband and Starlink. The FCC had already made some awards to Starry, and the assumption is that it would have made the rest. The bottom line is that the Starry default is one more piece of the puzzle of solving the rural broadband gap, and the ISPs located close to the Starry defaults should take a hard look at changing grant plans.