Starry Resurfaces

I’ve written a few times over the years about Starry, a wireless ISP that is originally launching in Boston. The company was founded by Chet Kanojia who readers might remember as the founder of Aereo – the company that tried to deliver affordable local programming through a wireless connection.

Starry’s product set is simple – $50 per month for 200 Mbps broadband. There’s a $50 install fee and then $50 per month with no add-ons or extra charges. This easily beats the regular broadband prices for Charter and Verizon FiOS, both at $70+ for the same speed when considering the charge for the modem.

Starry has changed its business plan. They had first announced a launch in 2016 that was going to beam to a small antenna placed in a customer’s window. I’m imagining they ran into a number of issues with this, including technical issues, because that plan never went beyond the first round of beta testing and Starry went quiet.

The new technology will use millimeter wave spectrum to beam broadband to a receiver on the top of apartment buildings and will then use existing wiring to connect to customers. This involves point-to-point radios. Starry launched a few years ago using licensed millimeter wave spectrum at 38.2 and 38.6 GHz. The company says they are going to be using spectrum between 37 GHz and 40 GHz, so they must be planning to engage in the upcoming auctions for 37 GHz and 39 GHz spectrum.

At the spectrum they are using they could easily be beaming between 1 – 2 gigabytes of data to a given apartment building today. That will increase if they get access to more bands of spectrum.  That’s plenty of bandwidth to provide a 200 Mbps product to every tenant. The company is advertising that they are using pre-5G technology. That’s an interesting phrase because they are likely delivering Ethernet over the wireless connection to each building. Perhaps if they buy more spectrum they will then claim to be using 5G. This is an interesting concept for point-to-point radios because the 5G standard doesn’t do anything to increase the speed on a connection. However, they might get some advantages from 5G which will make it easier to link multiple frequencies on the same point-to-point path.

The current business plan is to use the existing wiring in a building. That is interesting because they are bringing broadband to the roof, and the wiring from apartment buildings today always originates on the first floor or basement in a communications space. I have to think that Starry is dropping a fiber from the roof to the communications room in order to get access to wiring.

The only wiring that is almost always available in a home-run configuration to each apartment is the telco copper, and I guess this is the wiring they are using. With today’s G.Fast technology it’s easy in most cases to achieve speeds of at least 400 Mbps and sometimes faster. I’ve heard that G.Fast is achieving near gigabit speeds in labs, so it’s likely over time that Starry will be able to step up the speeds. Coaxial cables are a different matter and there are numerous different wiring schemes around and also a wide variety of situations where the cable incumbent can lay claim to those cables.

Starry is creating yet another competitor for anybody building broadband in an urban environment. I have a hard time seeing this technology making any sense in a small town or rural environment. In cities the technology probably only makes sense for somewhat sizable apartment buildings, or perhaps multi-tenant business buildings. It’s an intriguing technology for landlords because they can offer tenants another option other than the incumbent cable or telephone company.

It’s been interesting over the years to watch the evolution of broadband in apartment buildings. For many years there were hurdles for a competitor to deliver big bandwidth inside apartment buildings. The cost of rewiring older apartment buildings was often prohibitive. But today there are lower-cost techniques for stringing fiber inside older buildings as well as creative uses of existing wiring such as using G.Fast. Where apartment buildings were often left out of fiber business plans they are now a big focus for competitors.

The bottom line is that anybody planning on competing for downtown apartment buildings will have another potential competitor. Starry plans on being in most major metropolitan markets and there are likely going to be copycat ISPs that do this elsewhere. Urban apartment buildings have gone from being underserved to perhaps having some of the best broadband in any market.

Starry Back in the News

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!