The Internet is broken. Not just the way you buy it (from a virtual monopoly), but the way it’s delivered to your house (by a patchwork of often-outdated systems), and the way it’s being expanded (through an infrastructure-intensive process that requires major construction capital).
Is a single company capable of changing this system? That’s the goal of Starry, a new company led by Chet Kanojia–the former CEO of streaming TV startup Aereo, whose challenge to traditional cable companies was quashed by the Supreme Court in 2014. Not unlike Aereo, the company is putting its own David–a type of wireless broadband–into the ring against an aging but ubiquitous Goliath–this time, conventional Internet service providers.
Starry wants to fundamentally change not only in how we use the Internet, but how it is bought and sold in America. It wants to be the difference between “‘we’re selling you wires’ to ‘we’re selling you a great experience,'” as Kanojia told me. Oh, and it’s getting into the hardware business, too.
A Series Of Waves, Rather Than Tubes
The biggest change Starry wants to make is how Internet arrives at your doorstep–or window, as the company would have it. As a customer, your wireless broadband will be beamed through the air on what are known as millimeter waves. Wedged right between infrared waves and microwaves, this band of spectrum is unused, and it’s great for transmitting data quickly–perfect for our video-heavy content consumption habits.
The downfall of these millimeter waves is that they’re not great at moving through structures or over long distances. To get around this fairly major drawback, Starry is proposing a constellation (get it?) of hardware hubs that focus and amplify those waves. In any given Starry neighborhood, a base station (known as a “Starry Beam”) within a mile or two of your house will beam waves to an intermediary hub outside your window (aka a “Starry Point”), which in turn connects directly to your own router inside, called a “Starry Station.”
Both of those intermediary hubs contain a technology called phased arrays, which focus and steer the waves to the desired end location. Kanojia uses the analogy of a battery-powered lightbulb whose energy decreases as you move away from the source, compared to a laser, whose energy is focused and consistent. Phased arrays have been around for a century but are mainly only used in defense and aerospace applications, like radar. “It’s not that it hadn’t been done before, but nobody’s done it for communications applications,” he says.
For example, say you live in the East Village. One or two rooftops around your neighborhood will host Starry Beams that send waves to locations within a roughly one-mile radius. Your own personal phased array, the Starry Point will enhance them and transmit them to your Starry Station, which acts like any other router to stream Deutschland 83 directly to your iPad. Got it?
As many other publications have pointed out–notably Re/code‘s Ina Fried–this technology and business model are still very much unproven. Starry will begin a beta test of the service this summer in Boston, which the company says will last “a few months,” to be followed by other cities.
A Better Router For Any Type Of Internet
Despite the complex wireless tech, the core thing Starry is selling is ease. You’ll buy a Starry Station router directly. You’ll set it up yourself. You won’t need to schedule a team to hook you up to use the web. This station alone will be available to anyone with any type of Internet come February for $350–a price tag as sky-high as the company’s name, balanced by extra features and slick software.
According to Starry’s head of industrial design, Don Lehman, network speeds tend to suffer because of the crappy design of conventional routers. “Because they’re these weird devices that don’t feel like they’re meant for your home, you hide them,” he told me. “And when you hide them, you kill the performance.” And if there’s a connectivity problem, the hieroglyphics on the side of a typical router won’t do much to tell you where the problem is–much less indicate whether your Internet is as fast as it should be when it is working.
Instead, Lehman wanted to design a router that’s meant to be displayed, so it can communicate about its health and your usage. Starry Station’s Android-operating touch-screen face displays a percentage number representing the speed of your connection based on the average. Look across the room, and you’ll see this ambient “health score” number at a glance. You can dig down into more details as well, like your exact speed and how many devices are connected plus which ones are hogging the data.
You’ll also be able to display the password on this screen if you want, or institute restrictions directly from this screen, for example, shutting off access for your kids at a certain hour. You’re paying for ease, rather than infrastructure. Or, as Kanojia puts it, “do I really care about that wire or utility? All I really care about is whether my Netflix experience is great or not.”
You’ll be able to buy a router on February 5, but the more critical aspect of Starry’s business, providing Internet, will roll out over the coming years with pricing still forthcoming. It’s very early days for the company. But the idea at its core–that someone has to challenge the broken customer experience and outdated technology of today’s major Internet service providers–is inevitable. Even if this particular technology doesn’t replace it completely, something eventually will. The question is simply when.