Business & Tech

Starry pulls broadband out of thin air

Starry Inc. chief executive Chet Kanojia (right) and Chief Technology Officer Joe Lipowski.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Starry Inc. chief executive Chet Kanojia (right) and Chief Technology Officer Joe Lipowski.

Chet Kanojia’s second act is about to open.

The Boston-based entrepreneur, whose ill-fated attempt to disrupt the television industry was crushed by the US Supreme Court, is set to offer a similar David v. Goliath business prospect: undercutting the giants of broadband with ultra-fast Internet at cut-rate prices.

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A year in development, Kanojia’s new venture, Starry Inc., will begin selling high-speed Internet to a few Boston neighborhoods in early 2017. Prices haven’t been set yet, but Kanojia expects Starry will cost about the same as existing broadband offerings, while delivering far more speed than most: 200 to 300 megabits per second, to start, and no caps on monthly data use.

Unlike Comcast or Verizon, which is spending $300 million to bring its Fios broadband service to Boston, Starry doesn’t rely on the costly work of running wires along every city street. Instead the Internet signals are beamed wirelessly from transmitters mounted on cell towers and other high points over very high-frequency radio waves to small antennas installed in customers’ homes.

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That approach, Kanojia bragged, will enable Starry to roll out service much faster, and at a vastly lower cost; he said it would cost less than $10 million to cover the entire city.

“To build out a city the size of Boston would take months, not years.” Kanojia said.

The company recently debuted a test of its system at an apartment in Charlestown, where a Starry technician streamed video from Amazon.com from a base station mounted on a building 1 kilometer away. The picture quality was excellent, but more impressive was the TV’s snappy response to remote commands. With other Internet providers, hitting fast-forward while streaming a movie often causes a few seconds of buffering delay — but not with Starry. The TV show simply hopped forward 30 seconds, again and again, instantly.

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“Once they see this, it’s like, oh my God, I don’t have to sit around and wait for a loading bar any more,” Kanojia said.

The test video was also streamed in the ultra-high-definition 4K format, which uses about four times as much bandwidth as a high-definition movie stream. As Amazon, Netflix, and other Internet streaming companies move to this new video standard, Kanojia said consumers will need faster broadband, and an end to data caps that other providers impose.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A wireless router is seen outside of the window at Starry’s offices.

The Starry venture shares something in common with Kanojia’s previous startup: challenging dominant incumbents at a time of technological ferment. That business, Aereo, captured over-the-air TV broadcasts from major networks like CBS, NBC, ABC, and Fox, and retransmitted them over the Internet so subscribers could watch their favorite shows on any Internet-connected device.

But because Aereo didn’t pay retransmission fees to the broadcasters, the industry sued Aereo for copyright infringement. The US Supreme Court ruled in the broadcasters’ favor in 2014, and Aereo was annihilated.

Starry doesn’t have the same legal challenges ahead of it, but some in the industry question just how effective its technology will be. The network begins at the same buildings and towers that host cellphone antennas. Starry will use “millimeter-wave” radios that can broadcast an Internet signal as far as 1.5 kilometers, and each radio can serve 1,000 customers, the company said.

The signal is received by an antenna installed outside the window of a home subscriber. It’s then fed to a home Wi-Fi router, also designed by Starry, which distributes broadband throughout the house.

The company has licenses from the Federal Communications Commission to set up networks in Boston and 14 other cities, including New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Dallas.

But others have tried and failed to make a go of wireless broadband, and plenty of industry skeptics doubt that Starry can pull it off.

“This is fine technology if you want to do a very small-scale deployment,” said Jan Dawson, chief analyst for telecom research firm Jackdaw Research. But Dawson said building a large-scale version will be far more expensive than Starry claims. “Maybe they do have some special secret sauce, but I’m inherently skeptical of that.”

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

A wireless router by Starry for its new high-speed broadband service.

Chetan Sharma, who runs his own technology consulting firm, also questioned Starry’s cost assumptions, saying it will take many, many base stations to build reliable wireless coverage in the complex geography of a big city.

Moreover, Sharma said wireless broadband has “performance issues in weather conditions — storms, rain, etc.” That’s because the high frequency signals broadcast by the type of radios Starry will use are easily absorbed by raindrops, falling snow, or even heavy fog, reducing the range of the system.

Other companies with much deeper pockets have tried to challenge the main Internet providers. The search giant Google wired several US cities with its own fiber network that promised Internet speeds of 1 gigabit per second. But the effort was hugely expensive and fraught with delays, often caused by legal challenges from cable companies, and in October Google announced a “pause” in its rollout of the broadband deployment.

But in June, Google acquired Webpass Inc., a San Francisco company that delivers wireless Internet to office and apartment buildings in several cities, including Boston. Google may have come to the same conclusion as Kanojia — that stringing fiber to every building is more trouble than it’s worth, and that wireless broadband is ready for the big time.

If both Webpass and Starry can prove wireless Internet is reliable and cost-effective, Kanojia predicted traditional service providers may adopt the technology to augment their networks or expand into new territories.It could also induce new entrants to take up the Internet business, and seemingly suddenly consumers may have a proliferation of choices.

“In a decade or less you will have 10 ISPs that are going to compete for your business as a consumer,” Kanojia said. That would mean better service, and lower prices — pulled out of thin air.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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