Regardless of profession, gender, or station in life, homo sapiens of today need the internet (and how). This is why no one can deny how surreal the next five words sound: blazing-fast free unlimited internet access. And bringing us closer to this alternate reality are innovative Wireless Internet Service Providers (WISP).
Residents of a Boston public housing apartment complex will soon have access to just this kind of a new-age wonder. Starry, a WISP startup that believes the future is wireless, inked a partnership with the Boston Housing Authority in August 2018. This pilot venture dubbed the ‘Starry Connect program’, will help get more people online and engaged with critical online services – for free.
Also, thanks to its recent tie-up with real-estate developer Related Companies, Starry will be able to deliver in-home Wifi to low-income residents at a deeply discounted price of $20 per month. The service is expected to be functional starting this fall, across the U.S.
A Reprieve from the Goliaths of Broadband
There was a time when well-established ISPs such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T ruled the roost. Slowly, however, small WISPs started to take root, especially in rural areas where the broadband giants couldn’t reach.
Of late, though, the stars seem to have aligned for the WISPs, as they are seen to be really thriving in the metros. Not merely a flash in the ‘internet’ pan anymore but a real threat to traditional ISPs, these WISPs are here to stay. In fact, there are an estimated 3,000 to 4,000 WISPs in the U.S now.
Improvements in wireless technology, better government policies relating to the wireless spectrum, greater investor interest in these technologies, and competitive rates are all instrumental in the growing popularity of WISPs. It also helps that consumers are willing to cut the cable cords in favor of streaming videos online through the likes of Netflix and Amazon Prime. This user preference, in turn, allows WISPs to eat into the revenues of the Direct To Home(DTH) service providers.
Custom Hardware and More
Founded in 2016, Starry is one such WISP that uses disruptive ‘millimeter waves and proprietary technology’ for faster and cheaper internet. No contract, one simple plan, great affordability, and no data cap are the defining features that set Starry’s service apart from the traditional players.
It also offers a touchscreen-enabled Wifi home hub, Starry Station. This device usually costs $349 in the marketplace but comes free with Starry’s services. It allows users to check speeds, implement parental controls on internet usage, contact tech support, and even shows how much data the devices connected to the network are using.
Starry’s CEO Chaitanya “Chet” Kanojia believes that providing custom hardware enables them to redefine what the user experience should be. He expects the device to help the startup know exactly what’s going on with the customers and thus keep them happy.
Devilishly Fast and Affordable Internet
Kanojia said in an interview that the technologies that Starry uses have been around for a long time and are also dirt cheap. “But no one else has stitched them together, the way we have,” In fact, a recent press release stated that Starry was the first to commercially deploy (in the United States) a point-to-multipoint, gigabit-capable fixed wireless network using millimeter wave spectrum.
Despite (or perhaps owing to) all the complex technical elements associated with the service, Starry’s fixed wireless broadband service is not expensive. In fact, it undercuts traditional broadband providers. The big advantage here is the lower infrastructural costs associated with Starry’s electronic components. If a traditional provider spends $2,500 per home to install underground broadband cables or fibers, Starry can do so wirelessly for about $25 for each home.
Thus, Boston-based Starry is able to offer its services free, or at a really low rate, to select low-income societies. For others who can afford it, the WISP prices unlimited internet services at just $50 per month for 200 megabits per second (with no caps on data consumption). On the other hand, big internet service providers charge upwards of $70 per month for capped internet broadband plans, usually bundled with TV and phone service. Competition such as Netblazr offers 100 to 500 megabits per second for $60 per month and Comcast’s Xfinity is $60 per month for 75 megabits per second.
Internet for all
A rock-solid internet solution for the masses is a real need, as the Federal Communications Commission claims that over 24 million Americans still lack access to a high-speed internet broadband connection. More worryingly, nearly half of lower-income Americans do not have a broadband connection at home.
Virginia Lam Abrams, Starry’s SVP of communications and government relations, says that owing to the presence of regional ISP monopolies, around 60% of the US has little or no choice in the providers. And it’s such a non-competitive landscape that eventually led to inflated costs and abysmal customer care by the Internet Service Providers (ISP) behemoths.
Starry presents the perfect answer for this situation, thanks to its staunch commitment to an open and neutral internet. Covering over 350,000 homes in the Boston, and only growing in reach, Starry aims to bridge the gap between the internet haves and have-nots.
Kanojia, in the startup’s blog post on net neutrality, even proudly proclaims that the service is built on the belief that people deserve better internet. He has also pledged to never impose data caps to the startup’s reasonably priced offering.
Additionally, Starry is committed to protecting every individual’s right to privacy by never collecting or accessing the user’s browsing data.
Future-Proofing the Starry Model
While the technology behind Starry still faces a few roadblocks, in terms of difficulty in scaling up and costs of installation, investors are upbeat about the product. It is definitely getting more attention owing to the brains behind this innovative internet marvel, Kanojia. He had previously founded Aereo, which was another media distribution tech startup. Though it ultimately failed following a patent lawsuit, Aereo made clever use of existing technology to provide over-the-air television broadcasts to internet users without TV subscriptions. This was a testimony of Kanojia’s passion and ingenuity in the tech space. It also partly explains why a diverse set of investors such as Tiger Global, KKR, Firstmark Capital, and IAC seem eager to buy-into the Starry vision.
Thanks to the $163M in total funds raised, in the works are expansion plans to service 18 new markets such as Cleveland, Chicago, Houston, Dallas, and Denver. The company is also committed to investing heavily in technology and aggressively signing up new customers – large buildings and small properties alike. Starry currently employs 250+ people and is rapidly growing.
Starry plans to license its technologies to other companies, as suggested in a press release announcing its strategic partnership with chipset-maker Marvell. This move will support its efforts to increase the adoption and penetration of the Starry brand of internet. And soon, more fixed wireless providers can deploy their own broadband networks – making the internet so much cheaper.
If executed well, Kanojia dreams of creating a new ecosystem where new providers will offer point-to-multipoint wireless Internet access, while using Starry’s proprietary technology. “This will allow you to basically have a completely different form of ISP,” he said.