Broadband services

Will Starry's Big Broadband Ambition Fall to Earth?

Lest you had any doubts about Chet Kanojia's broadband ambitions, let me put them to rest.

The CEO of startup Internet venture Starry Inc. plans to blanket the world with his new wireless broadband service. I mistakenly believed Kanojia was only going after the US market. But it turns out that the Starry exec has much bigger plans. Here's an excerpt from an interview with Kanojia on Starry Internet.

Light Reading: "You've said you'd like this to be nationwide."

Kanojia: "Global."

LR: "Global! Oh, I'm sorry, I mistook that. Global ambition. But despite the potential capex savings here, that's still a huge operational challenge, particularly coming out of a startup. So why is that something you think you can do?"

Kanojia: "People have proven that startups can make electric cars that are better than Detroit could ever make them. Talent is talent. If there is access to capital and the appropriate talent, and people have the will to work hard and thoughtfully, great things happen."

Of course, Kanojia expressed equal optimism about Aereo, which ultimately couldn't overcome numerous legal hurdles, but that failure hasn't slowed him in the least. The plan for Starry Internet is to launch in Boston this summer and spread quickly from there. (See Last Chapter (11) for Aereo and Gigabites: Starry-Eyed Ambition in Boston.)

On the technology front, the company appears to have solid innovation on its side. Using high-frequency millimeter waves, Starry will deliver wireless broadband service with speeds up to a gigabit per second. Usually the problem with high-frequency spectrum is that the signal degrades quickly, but Starry plans to get around that issue with active phased arrays. As I understand it, an active phased array adds signal amplification and adjusts the relationship of signal pulses from multiple antennas in order to direct the signal pattern for best performance.

Starry Point
Starry Point

There's another technical issue with millimeter wave technology, however. The signals don't penetrate walls. To overcome that obstacle, Starry requires both indoor and outdoor transceivers. Consumers will need a Starry Point antenna device that sits outside a window and communicates back to a WiFi router in the home. It's not an impossible solution, but by the look of the Starry Point, it's an impractical one.

Beyond the technical challenges, the business hurdles are even higher. Starry will need significant resources -- capital and talent -- not only to get its service off the ground, but for day-to-day operations, customer support, maintenance, sales and marketing, network upgrades and more. And that's without even factoring in the competition. Incumbent Internet service providers aren't going to back away from a startup, and the big brands have deep pockets to fight against challengers like Starry.

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One could make the case that Starry could make a living off the other part of its two-pronged business, the Starry Station. The Starry Station is a WiFi router that boasts the ability to bring some much-needed intelligence to the in-home network. This is a hot area for the industry right now because consumers are demanding better WiFi performance for their connected devices (primarily for streaming video), and service providers are anxious to avoid support calls and customer dissatisfaction. (See Battle for the Home Network? It's On.)

Starry Station
Starry Station

The Starry Station includes features for network health monitoring, automated speed tests, parental controls and more. It also has a touchscreen display and built-in support for future Internet of Things applications.

But again Starry is faced with growing competition. Traditional service providers are working on the same features, as are retail companies like Eero , Luma Inc. and even Google (Nasdaq: GOOG). Plus, the Starry Station is priced at $350. Kanojia claims that's not expensive for everything the product offers, but it's certainly not cheap either.

I have great respect for Kanojia. I will never be a CEO because I see too many possibilities for failure where true visionaries see opportunity. Kanojia may be one of those visionaries, but he still has a very difficult road ahead. I wish him the best of luck. He and Starry are going to need it.

— Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, Light Reading

Duh! 2/5/2016 | 10:56:05 AM
Re: Doubts... There's a fine line between naysaying and healthy skepticism. Millimeter wave is a really tough neighborhood.

On the other hand, these folks have a track record. I understand that there's been a lot of creative ferment in devices, antennas, signal processing, radar, anti-jamming etc., particularly driven by defense applications. As it happens, a cluster of those skill-sets is well-established in greater Boston -- including Lincoln Labs, Mitre, Raytheon, MA/COM, Skyworks, Hanscom AFB, MIT and other universities.  These all suggest that this team could be onto something.

It will be really interesting to see what they've got.
KBode 2/5/2016 | 9:14:19 AM
Doubts... Seems to be a lot of engineers expressing doubt at this actually working very well. Will be very interesting to see if they're wrong -- many engineers similar didn't think Google's broadband balloons could fly for more than a day, and they're now keeping them up for half a year at a time. I'd be very curious just how this phase array system works, and how they hope to avoid the historical problems with millimeter wave technology regarding attenuation and interference from moisture sources (aka weather). 
inkstainedwretch 2/5/2016 | 1:23:39 AM
Re: Tesla Elon Musk has access to enough capital to keep Tesla going despite the hurdles. I am skeptical Starry will be able to secure a commensurately sustaining flow of capital. It just seems like the scheme requires way too much infrastructure to build and maintain. I'd be happy to be proven wrong here. -- Brian Santo
Mitch Wagner 2/4/2016 | 12:30:25 PM
Tesla Tesla, with similar challenges, has managed to take on the auto companies. Why shouldn't Starry be able to do the same?
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