With fixed wireless broadband, startup Starry will take on big challenges

20160128 starry window antenna

The Starry Internet fixed-wireless broadband service will use an outdoor antenna on the subscriber's home.

Credit: Starry

Where Starry Internet dreams of a gigabit, others have found a harsh reality

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission said Thursday that broadband networks are growing too slowly to meet the country's needs. A startup called Starry launched this week promising to roll out broadband faster using wireless, but the track record for companies doing that isn't good.

The FCC reported that 34 million U.S. residents still can't get broadband, which it defines as at least 25Mbps (bits per second) for downloads and 3Mbps for uploads. The problem is worst in rural areas and tribal lands, where about 40 percent can't get service like that. 

Starry plans to target cities first, starting in Boston, where a beta test will start this summer. But a big part of its pitch is being able to get users connected quickly.

The company, started by Aereo founder Chet Kanojia, plans to offer gigabit speeds over a wireless network that talks to antennas that users place outside their windows. Starry won't have to dig trenches, pull fiber or dispatch installers, and it says removing those costs will help it undercut traditional broadband rates.

But fixed wireless has its own complications. Broadband challenger Clearwire, and an earlier provider called Teligent, failed after aggressive efforts to use wireless as the so-called "last mile" of their networks. There's a good reason for that, said Roger Entner of Recon Analytics.

"The physics are tough to overcome, and technology has been slow to improve here," Entner said.

Teligent, which sold fixed wireless to commercial users, folded in 2001. Clearwire, founded in 2003, ran out of cash to keep building its network and was acquired by partner Sprint in 2013. Sprint itself had earlier abandoned its own fixed-wireless service.

Transmitting a signal through the air is more complicated than sending it down a wire because haze, rain and anything else in the air can get in the way. The higher the frequency, the more power you need to make it go the distance.

Starry plans to use frequencies around 38GHz, far higher than Clearwire's 2.5GHz. A 38GHz network would require more base stations and careful radio engineering, Entner said.

Starry would need a line of sight to each subscriber's home, and range would be about three kilometers at best, he said. To serve residents on both sides of a building, Starry would need transmitters on both sides because the signals couldn't go through the building.

Line of sight can also make a service harder to use, Entner said. Though customers won't have to wait for an installer to arrive, they will have to put an antenna in the window. For renters, that can be a hard thing to get past the landlord. And residents of cold places like Boston may question how that will affect the seal on their window.

All this adds to the cost of deploying a network and tuning it to deliver the promised speeds. Even after turning on commercial service, Clearwire fielded numerous complaints about poor performance.

Starry said its newer technology will help it overcome those hurdles. Among other things, it will use MU-MIMO (multi-user multiple-in, multiple-out), an antenna architecture found in newer Wi-Fi networks that's designed to form several beams to target different users. And it will have multiple licensed bands of spectrum.

Perhaps wisely, Starry isn't putting all its eggs in the Internet service basket. It's also introducing a distinctive wedge-shaped Wi-Fi router, the Starry Station. Subscribers can use it to spread the Starry Internet signal around their homes, but there are also Ethernet ports, so it can be used with other broadband services.

starrystation print 04 Starry Inc.

The Starry Station Wi-Fi router will have a touchscreen and services including Internet speed tests.

Going on sale next week for $349.99, the Starry Station will include a touchscreen and several special features, including a persistent built-in speed test to show how fast the Internet link is, parental controls, and a button to tap for immediate customer support.

The router will have the latest, fastest version of Wi-Fi, 802.11ac. It will also include IEEE 802.15, a radio technology used for Internet of Things protocols such as ZigBee and Thread. A Device Activity Map will show what devices are connected, whether each is working well, and how much data each one is using. Users will be able to manage the router through a smartphone app.

If a revolution in broadband never gets off the ground, smart homes might be Starry's next frontier.

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