Startup Says Beaming Millimeter Waves Over the Air Will Make It a Star in Ultra-Fast Wireless Broadband
Standing on the flat roof of a data center at an undisclosed location in Boston, a shivering Chet Kanojia gestures toward a sleek white box about the size of a piece of carry-on luggage. This is the proprietary base station that the seasoned startup founder believes will change the way the world receives its Internet and liberate frustrated customers from the iron grip of legacy providers such as Comcast and Time Warner.
The white box mounted on a pole before us is called a Starry Beam. Only about a dozen of these custom base stations exist in the world right now. The team at Kanojia’s newest startup, named Starry, has spent the past 20 months perfecting the base station’s design. Its performance so far on this nondescript rooftop has persuaded Kanojia that the Internet of the future will not be delivered through expensive fiber optic cables laid in the ground, but beamed over the air using high-frequency millimeter waves.
Standing beneath the Starry Beam, Kanojia points past a spate of warehouses lined with leafy trees to an apartment complex about a kilometer away. There, jutting out from the window of an apartment that Starry has rented, is a white spherical device called a Starry Point. Starry Beams broadcast millimeter waves to Starry Points, which convert them to lower frequencies that flood the home so users can stream ultra-high-definition 4K TV shows to their hearts’ content.
This method, Kanojia believes, can offer much faster service to customers for far less money. In January, he shared that vision at Starry’s launch party in New York City. The company has been quiet ever since, but executives now say their first beta, which has been underway since late August, has confirmed their basic premise—that millimeter waves can deliver ultra-fast broadband speeds up to 1 gigabit per second to customers over the air.
Based on these early results, Starry anticipates average user speeds on its yet-to-be-built network will be as fast as any broadband connection available today—somewhere in the range of 200 to 300 megabits per second. For comparison, the average broadband network in the United States offers average download speeds of just 55 megabits per second.
Right now, Starry’s beta is only measuring the performance of this original Starry Beam that serves a handful of users. In the first quarter of 2017, the company will launch an open beta and build its test network out to a half dozen sites capable of serving several hundred users. Starry has also received permission from the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to run tests in 14 other cities including New York, Dallas, Seattle, San Francisco, and Chicago.
Because Starry CTO Joe Lipowski says the start-up doesn’t plan to publish the results of the beta, it’s hard for anyone to independently evaluate the company’s claims. Starry has not released any press releases about its progress, and Kanojia has also kept the details of his fundraising under wraps. “The less people know about our performance, the better it is for us,” he says.
That attitude has left outsiders wondering what to think of the company’s prospects in such a highly competitive market. “On the surface, the technology sounds like it's sufficient to do what they need it to do,” says Teresa Mastrangelo, a longtime wireless analyst with Broadbandtrends LLC. “We haven’t really seen anything at a big scale. I'll be curious to see how it goes when we're looking at tens of thousands of subscribers.”
If the company can successfully scale, Starry could rewrite the story of what it means to provide high-speed Internet service to homes and businesses. Millimeter waves are high-frequency radio waves that occupy a section of the electromagnetic spectrum that has never been used for consumer technologies. While WiFi, Bluetooth, and cellular carriers have operated on frequencies below 6 gigahertz, Starry is currently testing its technology at 38.2 GHz and 38.6 GHz (where waves are much shorter in length), with future plans to broadcast at 37 GHz and 40 GHz.
Millimeter waves offer several advantages over those delivering cellular data wirelessly on 4G LTE networks and even those carrrying broadband Internet service that is piped to homes through fiber. First, there is a lot more open bandwidth in the millimeter-wave range than there is at lower frequencies crowded with signals from smartphones, microwaves, and WiFi devices. And Starry thinks sending the Internet over the air to consumers will be much cheaper than digging up the ground to lay cables.
In fact, Kanojia estimates that Starry can build out a wireless network that costs only $25 for every home it serves in areas with a population density of at least 1,500 homes per square mile. Installing fiber networks typically costs $2,500 per home. Kanojia thinks the company can make money with market penetration as low as 3 to 5 percent, whereas fiber deployments sometimes require up to 65 percent penetration to be profitable.
One factor that will likely work in Starry’s favor is the range and agility of its Starry Beams. Kanojia says these base stations can deliver superfast Internet service to any customer within 1.5 kilometers who also falls within “near-line-of-sight” of a Starry Beam. That’s an important finding because millimeter waves are often presumed to perform best at shorter distances when there is a clear path between a base station and the end user—and such a direct route can be difficult to find in cities. Millimeter waves can’t easily penetrate windows or buildings, or maneuver around objects like traditional cellular signals can. They are also prone to degrade over longer distances when passing through foliage or rain.
To work around that, Starry equipped each Starry Beam with four active phased arrays, which are rows of tiny antenna elements that cooperate to point and amplify signals in precise directions. With these arrays, a base station can transmit signals more rapidly and with more precision than traditional antennas. In practical terms, this means the Starry network can serve Starry Point receivers mounted on the sides of a building from the same base station that serves those in front by bouncing signals off of buildings and other reflective surfaces. “Our measurements have shown that there’s tremendous reflections,” Lipowski says. Even at what they call “extreme non-line-of-sight” conditions, they’ve delivered data rates of 200 Mb/s to beta users.
Based on these results, Kanojia thinks Starry can provide broadband service with a deployment model similar to existing LTE networks: renting space on existing rooftop cell towers through companies such as the American Tower Corporation. To cover all of Boston, which measures about 230 square kilometers, Kanojia figures the company will need to install three or four Starry Beams at 20 to 30 sites. Each box will support about 1,000 users and boast throughput of 5 Gb/s, for a total of 15 to 20 Gb/s per site. They expect this rate will improve to 45 to 50 Gb/s per site in 2017, once the company upgrades its equipment to meet a new wireless standard known as 802.11ax.
Though Starry says it has cleared some of the biggest technical hurdles that millimeter waves pose for delivering high-speed Internet over the air, it must still find the right pricing model to bring the service to market. “There's no doubt that one could make a system work at 1.5 kilometer range at 37 GHz. In fact, that's a pretty modest range,” says John Naylon, CTO at Cambridge Broadband Networks Limited which operates several millimeter wave networks throughout the U.S. “The issues are going to be economic.”
Mastrangelo, the analyst, says that based on competitors’ rates, Starry would need to price its broadband plan below $100 a month, and ideally between $65 and $85 a month. Unfortunately, Starry’s heavy reliance on custom-built hardware means that its base stations are much more expensive than off-the-shelf models.
Meanwhile, plenty of other wireless providers are rushing to develop their own gigabit solutions. Though Google has more or less abandoned its costly fiber deployments, it recently purchased a company called Webpass that provides wireless broadband to entire buildings by installing rooftop antennas. (Starry offers a similar option for landlords who want to hook up their properties.) Verizon and AT&T have both said that they will launch trials for delivering over-the-air broadband in 2017. Mastrangelo warns that if Starry doesn’t act quickly, the start-up could fall behind.
“If they had been able to come out with a service when they first unveiled it in January, they would have definitely had a huge head start and probably positioned themselves to be an acquisition for somebody,” she says. “But their timing is not fantastic at this stage.”
Jonathan Wells, president of the wireless consulting firm AJIS LLC, says even if Starry can scale and solve the complications of serving hundreds of users at once through phased arrays without causing interference, competition could quickly undercut their plans.
“I think Starry may well be the first there with the technology and if they are successful, they'll get snapped up by Verizon or AT&T,” Wells says. “But I think offering a service that is competitive with Verizon and AT&T is incredibly hard.”
Kanojia says Starry will ultimately compete with its gigabit rivals by providing exceptional customer service, rather than focusing only on high speeds. The company expects to double in size from roughly 100 employees to 200 before the end of next year; among them will be its first batch of customer representatives. But while the Starry team has already proven it can deliver speed, they may find that providing top-notch customer response is more of an art than a science.