High-speed fiber networks and the highly hyped Li-Fi are a ways off for must of us, but if you’re tired of your Internet provider, and the steep price you pay for slow Wi-Fi, then you might be interested in Starry, a recently-unveiled startup from Chet Kanojia, the same guy who brought us the ahead-of-its-time but now-defunct streaming service Aereo. The startup plans to offer wireless Internet speeds that are faster than traditional broadband, using underutilized high-frequency spectrum.
Starry plans to build a “nationwide wireless broadband network capable of delivering maximum speeds of up to a gigabit of Internet service to your home,” starting with a beta program in the Boston area this summer. As Issie Lapowsky reports for Wired, the goal is not only to build an alternative to the high infrastructure cost of wired networks, but to circumvent the companies that provide those networks (and put you through the annoying process of sending a technician to your home to provide access to their networks). Starry enables anyone to plug in a small device at home and access the Internet instantly over a wireless connection.
The idea is to use high-frequency millimeter waves to deliver the signal to your home. To accomplish that, Starry also installs “Starry Beams” on rooftops throughout your city. Each Beam sends connectivity to hubs called Starry Points, which you place just outside your window to pick up a signal. The service will launch city by city, region by region, as the company installs Starry Beams.
It’s unclear so far how much a monthly plan for Starry will cost, though the company says that it will be much cheaper than a standard broadband bundle, in part because Starry’s costs will be much lower. According to the company’s estimates, the average wired network costs approximately $2,500 per home to deploy. Starry’s cost is reportedly just $25 per month.
Lapowsky notes that Starry represents a continuation of Kanojia’s mission to give consumers more choice in how they connect to the Internet and television. With Aereo, Kanojia built warehouses full of mini-antennae to enable cord-cutters to watch live TV without buying a full cable package. As Aereo squared off with broadcasters — and ultimately lost — Starry will have to compete not only with giants like Comcast, but also with relative newcomers like Google Fiber and startups like Karma, which offers users Wi-Fi access anywhere they can get a cellular connection (much like using a personal hotspot on your smartphone).
But Starry doesn’t face the obvious legal issues that Aereo did. And the company does have the advantage of building its own router, one that anyone can use regardless of their Internet service provider. The Starry Station features a touchscreen interface that enables users to track their devices and the health of their network. It also lets them install parental controls, and possibly ad-blocking technology, at the network level. The $350 router would be a high-tech upgrade from the routers in most living rooms, as Starry’s service would be a big upgrade from the Internet networks that constrict users with service bundles and data caps. But unlike Starry’s internet service, which will begin as a beta program in Boston this summer, the Wi-Fi station is already available for purchase and works with your existing service, whether you have cable, fiber, or DSL.
But as Ina Fried reports for Re/code, Starry faces an uphill battle in its quest to beam connectivity wirelessly to your home. That’s because it’s still using “an underlying approach known as fixed wireless that has stumbled over time.” There are a couple of major challenges associated with the approach. The first is the technology, since it’s generally difficult to deliver Internet over the air and make it faster and as reliable as networks you access via cable, fiber, or other wires. And while the last leg of the service is wireless, delivering it still requires setting up costly infrastructure in each city and each community, where the company also has to get local approval.
The second issue is the business side of the service. The big cable and phone companies that currently control the process of delivering home Internet will “fight back hard to protect the cash cow,” as Fried points out. Starry is just getting started, and will need to brace itself for an onslaught of lobbying, as well as the marketing tactic of offering a bundle of TV, data, and phone service to compete against their rivals. Starry is hoping that cord-cutters will be happy to dump those bundles for fast Internet service, instead relying on services like Netflix and Hulu.
Another unknown is how the service will operate in real-world conditions. Factors like the distance between your home and the nearest tower or even the effects of storms and high winds can affect the strength of the signal. However, Starry is using a type of antenna known as an active phase array, which, combined with the deployment of multiple antennas, should improve performance over past fixed wireless services. An area where Starry is offering a clear improvement over past services is speed. The company says its technology can deliver gigabit speeds, much faster than those offered by most cable connections. To do that, Starry uses a combination of frequencies, including very high ones that can be easily blocked. Millimeter waves can’t penetrate a window, which is why Starry customers will need to mount their receivers outdoors.
There are lots of unanswered questions about Starry’s service. We don’t yet know how much its Internet service will cost, or whether the model that the company is talking about is actually scalable on anything other than a very regional level. It’s also unknown whether the company can really deliver the gigabit speeds that it’s promising. For now, Starry sounds like a great alternative to a traditional Internet service provider, especially for cord-cutters who are eager to ditch the cable bundle.