Starry: Ohio expansion marks ‘huge step’ for FWA provider

Starry, the hybrid fixed wireless startup that’s going after some of the same business as more traditional ISPs, earlier this week announced its expansion into Columbus, Ohio, where it’s set to launch its commercial service this summer.

It’s a long time coming, as the company was pursuing an ambitious buildout plan for markets across the U.S., until assorted roadblocks and the pandemic got in the way. Just about a year ago, analysts at the Wall Street investment firm MoffettNathanson Research predicted Starry could reach 100,000 subscribers by the end of 2020 – an impressive milestone by pretty much any standard.  

Co-founded by Chet Kanojia, who was behind Aereo until it succumbed to a U.S. Supreme Court decision, Starry uses technology designed to lower the cost of deploying high-speed broadband. Specifically, it uses 37/24 GHz spectrum and IEEE-based technology.

The service currently is available in parts of Boston, New York City, Washington, D.C., Denver and Los Angeles. In those markets, Starry uses the lower 37 GHz band through a market test authority license from the FCC. 

RELATED: Starry’s challenge: Scaling up as it expands into new markets

In Columbus, Ohio, Starry is offering an early adopter program for residents to lock in pricing of $25 a month for up to 200 Mbps near-symmetrical broadband service, without data caps or data overage fees. It also requires no contract and provides 24/7 access to human customer support.

Columbus marks Starry’s sixth market, which is part of a grand plan to cover more than 40 million households across the country.

“This is a huge step for us,” on several levels, Kanojia told Fierce.

Up until now, Starry was targeting only certain structures due to its equipment. But now, “this is the first market we’re going to be agnostic to the kind of premises we’re installing in,” he said. It could be a multi-dwelling unit (MDU), garden style house, brownstone or single-family home. “That’s a big deal.”

Another significant change: Starry plans to cover a vast majority of the city of Columbus and surrounding communities, meaning suburbs, rather than just smallish areas within the market, which is how it started with its initial deployments.

Starry internet
Called the Comet, Starry’s single-family home receiver is expected to play a big role in Starry’s expansion into Columbus, Ohio.  

This represents a new stage of growth for the company, where “we can really go after and bring our service to all the people who want it,” rather than be restricted to certain structures.  

Kanojia said Starry is unique in that it’s the only company deploying a full time division duplex (TDD) millimeter wave system. The unit  installed at customer homes is a “super elegant device” and it took a lot of engineering to get it to this point where they can justify the unit economics, he said.

In the early stages, he estimates the company's cost of the box is in the mid- to high $300 range, depending on volume, and next year, those figures are expected to come down to the mid-$200s.  

Starry was one of the recipients in the FCC’s recent Rural Digital Opportunity Fund (RDOF) auction. The Boston-based company was awarded $268.9 million for about 108,500 locations across nine states where it will be building out its hybrid wireless/fiber network.

The company has been a big believer in millimeter wave technology. Back in 2019, Starry won 200 MHz of 24 GHz spectrum in more than 50 Partial Economic Areas (PEAs) spanning about 110 cities; it’s using that spectrum as well as the lower 37 GHz band for its fixed wireless services.

RELATED: Starry prepares for 24 GHz deployments

While its 2018 goal of being in nearly 20 cities didn’t happen, the company grew its business a little over 100% based on subscribers during the pandemic and revenue more than that, according to Kanojia. But he’s not revealing how many customers the company currently serves. That kind of disclosure will happen in the future, he said.

Of course, a lot of bigger companies are jumping on the fixed wireless access (FWA) bandwagon. Wireless operators like Verizon and T-Mobile are rallying the troops to go after a market largely dominated by big cable companies.

The whole idea of offering better broadband to homes comes at a prime time as people are still working from home and likely to continue doing so even after the pandemic subsides.

One of the things that Starry is banking on is it doesn’t have any mobile service that it has to serve with its spectrum, and it’s using millimeter wave, so it has the speed and capacity that consumers are demanding. “We’re not constrained by the spectrum,” Kanojia said, and it’s not going to get pre-empted by a mobile service, which isn’t the same with mobile carriers.