Starry CEO: Fixed wireless is going to be ‘massive opportunity’

The fixed wireless space—one where a lot of wannabe disrupters came and went in decades prior—no longer carries a technology risk and actually is going to represent a “massive opportunity” as a sector, according to Starry founder and CEO Chet Kanojia.

Speaking at the Citi investor conference in Las Vegas on Thursday, Kanojia said what people often don’t understand or largely gloss over are the advances in the last five to seven years in the computing power that’s available in a very small form factor today. Starry is currently using 37.0-40 GHz spectrum.

In 2012 and 2013, 802.11ac had just come out and there was no real MIMO before that. “All of these things are incredibly new and this level of computing power was necessary to take advantage of some of these frequencies,” he said, adding that he isn’t going to outright dismiss the operational challenges. However, “none of that existed when people attempted fixed wireless in the past,” adding that the technical advancements in sheer compute power are staggering.

MIMO is key to what Starry is doing, and Kanojia shared some of the early learnings from Starry’s work in Boston. He explained that Starry wanted to conduct initial experiments in Boston because its engineering teams are based there and it offers a harsh RF environment in which to test its theories. Starry came out of stealth mode last year; Kanojia’s prior endeavors include Aereo, which captured over-the-air TV broadcasts and made them available to internet users but was shut down after a U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 2014 that deemed it violated copyright law.

During their tests in Boston, Starry’s engineers needed to verify they could run higher order modulations in an urban environment, and run them with MIMO. “We’ve done all that work and that was great learning to be able to get,” he said, adding the company also conducted work with some initial consumer focus groups to get a read on the type of price points that would be attractive and what kind of market penetration they might be able to expect. Starry has gotten authority from the FCC to deploy in 16 cities, but it’s not in a rush to expand as it wants to get through a full snow season in Boston before that.

Traditionally, larger carriers might have had the luxury to build out all of Boston and then spend a lot of money on a marketing campaign. “I don’t think the networks of the future are going to get built that way just because the performance of these networks are very dependent on the geography that you’re in and the topology that you’re in. If you’re just using millimeter wave for fronthaul, which potentially you could do as a mobile carrier, it’s a different ball game. But you run out of capacity … so if you’re going down to the consumer premise, you’re going to have to learn how to micro market and what are digital ways of micro marketing, so that was a bunch of learning that we had to sort of get.”

People talk a lot about weather and its impact on the millimeter wave bands, and it’s clearly a factor so you have to be careful in designing the technology. Issues happen because the equipment is new or unstable, “but if you do this correctly from an RF perspective, it’s a very robust implementation,” he said.

Last January, Starry announced it would deploy the world’s first millimeter wave band active phased array technology for consumer internet communications, using that technology as a platform for rolling out a nationwide fixed wireless broadband network capable of delivering internet speeds of up to one gigabit, wirelessly to the home. Using a self-installation system, consumers would be able to buy Starry products directly and connect to the internet in minutes. The company also unveiled the Starry Station, a touchscreen Wi-Fi station for the home.

The startup in December acknowledged that it has raised $63 million from investors to date.