Starry opts for Wi-Fi tech rather than 5G to keep costs low

As startup Starry gears up to launch its fixed wireless service in up to 16 new, major markets this year, the company currently has no plans to leverage the newly completed 5G standard for its service.

"We will definitely be standards based. So the question is whether we will continue on the IEEE standards path or move over to the 3GPP path. I think that will largely be a question of cost,” explained Starry chief Chet Kanojia in an interview with FierceWireless. Kanojia noted that Starry’s consumer premises equipment (CPE) runs around $200-$220, its receivers cost around $150, and its 802.11ac chips cost less than $10 each. “I’m dying to see who produces what kind of [5G] equipment next year or the year after that's going to do full TDD at those price points."

Kanojia added though that Starry’s system is specifically designed for fixed wireless applications, where users aren’t moving around. Thus, Starry’s proprietary, active phased array technology—which is based on the IEEE’s 802.11ac Wi-Fi standard—doesn’t need to support mobile uses like 5G will.

Kanojia’s 5G comments are noteworthy considering Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T each made news this week as they rush ever faster toward their respective 5G deployments.

Further, Kanojia said Starry is gearing up to upgrade its system from 802.11ac to the newer 802.11ax technology. He added that the company’s system works in the licensed 37.0-38.6 GHz band in all of its chosen markets, and that it supports download and upload speeds of 200 Mbps without any monthly usage cap.

Interestingly, Kanojia offered some additional details on the economics behind Starry’s network design and build-out plans. The company’s system relies on “Starry Beam” base stations connected to dark fiber that can transmit signals up to 2 kilometers to the company’s “Starry Point” receivers installed on homes or apartment buildings. That receiver then connects to a “Starry Station” Wi-Fi hub that would deliver services to actual customers. Kanojia said the company is targeting “modestly dense areas” in its markets that include roughly 1,000 homes per square mile—areas where he said Starry can cover households for roughly $25 per home. That number falls to around $12 per home in very dense areas. Thus, he said the company’s system can support 200 Mbps services to up to 800-1000 customers per cell sector. "You really only need 20 customers to break even on that sector,” he added.

As the company moves into its new markets, it will run up against some of the nation’s largest wireline internet providers like Verizon in Washington, D.C., and AT&T in Los Angeles. Those operators are currently upgrading their services to support 1 Gbps offerings—and Kanojia said Starry too could support such speeds. "We will probably have a Gig plan if someone wants it at some point, but we haven't thought about that yet,” he said, noting the company currently only offers the one 200 Mbps option. Moving to 1 Gbps options “is a software switch for us."

Starry’s plans are strikingly similar to Kanojia’s first major startup, Aereo. Although the Supreme Court eventually ruled Aereo’s technology as illegal, the startup had been rebroadcasting local TV stations to internet users—a service that represented a challenge to established TV broadcasters and pay TV providers. Similarly, Starry is now broadcasting internet services to users in a challenge to established, wired ISPs.