At a launch event in New York City today, Chaitanya "Chet" Kanojia, the founder of the now-deceased startup Aereo, launched an ambitious new wireless hub called Starry. Starry is supposed to offer gigabit internet to the home, but delivered over a wireless network rather than a traditional wired one. The technology was built by the same antenna experts who made Aereo, and may run into its own regulatory troubles as it attempts to leverage unlicensed bands of spectrum.
"It’s a little bit like witchcraft."
Like Aereo, Starry is a questionably ambitious idea. Kanojia wants to deliver extremely high-speed internet over the air using millimeter waves, which don't travel very far and aren't very good at penetrating obstacles — not even water in the air. That means Starry will have a lot of technical hurdles to overcome. The company is only presenting a sleek wireless hub at its event today, but it seems like more hardware — perhaps something outside the home — will be needed to fully connect to Starry's gigabit wireless network. It also means that Starry will need to set up broadcast points in very close proximity to its customers or use some sort of mesh technology to improve its reach. Doing that would likely make it harder for Starry to reach its goal of gigabit speeds. So, to be very clear, there's a lot to be skeptical about here.
Starry hasn't provided details on how it'll get around the many technical limitations in its way. "What are millimeter waves you ask? It’s a little bit like witchcraft," Kanojia says. The company keeps repeating a dense list of technologies — OFDM modulation, MU-MIMO, active phased array — which apparently add up to a solution. Kanojia acknowledges that no one has attempted internet delivery over millimeter waves before because it's difficult to get a connection from outside to inside of a house. But Starry has supposedly figured out a way to "steer" the signal using a bank of tiny antennas that increase the connection's power and accuracy. "People historically assumed fiber was the answer at all times," Kanojia says. Starry's approach, he claims, is "the most meaningful, scalable architecture anyone has proposed to this point."
Kanojia says that he wanted to launch Starry to give consumers an option about how they get internet. Most people are stuck with only one choice of internet provider — two if they're lucky — and it's difficult for new competitors to enter the space. Laying wires is expensive, as is launching a more traditional wireless network, so Kanojia is once again in charge of a company taking an unconventional approach in an attempt to quickly enter and disrupt an established market.
The company's hub, called Starry Station, doubles as a Wi-Fi router that can be controlled through a small touchscreen. The Station is supposed to include a built-in "internet health monitoring system," which will break down how much bandwidth different devices are using throughout the home and can suggest creating new networks to better suit specific devices.
"Did he say what the solution was?"
Starry still has a lot to prove. "A phased array is the worst possible choice for millimeter wave antenna. It’s terrible. I don’t understand it. The feed structure is very lossy, and it’s not cost-effective compared to a reflector or lens antenna," says Spencer Webb, an antenna consultant and President of AntennaSys. "[Kanojia] said it’s hard to go from the outside to the inside, but did he say what the solution was? Millimeter wave won’t go through a window." The answer of course, is this ugly antenna, which sits halfway outside your window, and halfway inside your home.
Starry will launch its service first in Boston, with its hub selling for $349.99. It hasn't said yet how much it'll cost to get internet service delivered to that hub, but it has said that there will be no contracts or data caps. Sales will start on February 5th, with deliveries beginning in March. Starry plans to launch in additional cities throughout the year.