Executive Interview: Joe Lipowski, Co-Founder and CTO, Starry
High capacity, affordable internet access by millimeter wave
What is Starry’s elevator speech?
We are a Boston-based technology company, pioneering the use of millimeter wave to deploy high capacity, affordable fixed wireless broadband. By providing wireless last-mile connectivity, we can connect homes at a fraction of the cost of traditional providers. We rapidly scale our network and offer competitive broadband service in areas that have been underserved or dominated by one provider.
Describe your background and what led you to this role as CTO.
Over the course of my career, I have held a number of senior leadership roles working across the RF and microwave industry: in infrastructure, semiconductors, terminal development and, most importantly, as a service provider. Those wide-ranging experiences gave me the strong foundation to help build out Starry’s very broad technologies.
Before Starry, I was with Aereo, where I spearheaded the technology development for Aereo’s proprietary, cloud-based antenna/DVR platform. And before Aereo, I had the pleasure of working with LoJack, Andrew Corporation, Celiant, Lucent, Cirrus Logic, Pacific Communication Sciences, M/A-COM and a couple of others in the defense business.
I have been blessed to have worked with so many great people over the years and have been given so much by so many patient mentors.
You launched Starry with your co-founder Chet Kanojia three years ago (January 2016). What prompted the two of you to form the company and set out to deliver the internet via millimeter wave?
In the United States, there is a severe imbalance when it comes to broadband competition and service. In many areas, consumers only have one choice of internet service provider and, as a result, consumers are faced with higher prices and sub-par customer care.
We founded Starry around the core belief that broadband access is a social good, and consumers deserve better, more affordable broadband access. We felt we could build better technology to connect more people at lower cost.
Our team began to work on developing millimeter wave technology that could deliver just that: reliable, gigabit-capable connections in dense urban environments. Our goal was to develop an entire technology stack that was cost efficient while simultaneously delivering network coverage and capacity in a cluttered urban landscape.
It was a tall and difficult challenge, but we were successful and launched our network to customers in late 2016. We’re in five markets today and growing rapidly. I’m very proud of the difficult and complex work that my team undertook to get us to this point.
How are you funded?
Starry is privately funded and backed by a diverse and world-class group of investors, including Tiger Global, KKR, FirstMark Capital, Fidelity Management and Research Company, ArrowMark Partners, IAC, Related Companies and HLVP.
What cities have Starry, and what percentage of the population do you cover in those cities?
Today, Starry’s network is actively serving subscribers in Boston, Los Angeles, D.C., New York City and Denver. Our network passes nearly 1.5 million households across those cities — meaning those households are within our network coverage.
What plans do you offer consumers?
Starry offers consumers high speed internet access for $50 per month for 200 Mbps plan speeds, inclusive of installation, 24/7 customer care and all equipment. We have no expensive TV bundles, no long-term contracts, no data caps, no hidden fees or extra taxes. It’s simple.
Starry also has a program, Starry Connect, an initiative to close the digital divide by providing free or low-cost internet access solutions to public and affordable housing communities. We partner with owners of public and affordable housing to offer simple, easy-to-understand plans for residents in underserved communities.
Describe the factors that enable your business plan to work (e.g., population density)?
As of right now, Starry is focused on deploying our network in urban areas, but we plan to expand to suburban areas (i.e., single family homes) in the fourth quarter of this year.
For us, we see a huge opportunity in focusing on urban and suburban areas, as over 85 percent of the U.S. population lives in urban or suburban counties, and over 50 percent of rural counties have shrunk between 2000 and 2016. We believe that the availability of next-generation, high capacity, truly broadband networks in cities and suburbs is essential, regardless of income level or building type.
What’s your strategy for growing your subscriber base?
We take a multi-pronged approach to adding subscribers. Consumers fundamentally crave choice, and when we deploy to a building community, word of mouth is a strong driver of adoption for us.
However, we also work closely with the real estate community and owners of MDUs (multi-dwelling units) to deploy Starry to their buildings. Real estate owners increasingly value the ability to offer broadband choice to their residents. They see it as an easy way to enhance the value of the property.
We also have a robust marketing and sales team who host events and are active in our local communities.
Describe the network that connects your subscribers to the internet, particularly the millimeter wave radio link.
Our technical architecture is conceptually simple. We connect our base stations and equipment through tier 1 internet transit providers to the internet using traditional networking gear. From there, the Starry magic begins:
Starry developed core wireless technology for our base stations based on 802.11ac and .11ax, with sophisticated hybrid digital-analog beamforming to direct our signal, focusing beams to the consumers. We deploy these base stations — aka Starry Beams — at 100 feet or higher on pre-zoned vertical assets, such as towers or managed rooftops. These Starry Beams communicate to Starry Point transceivers, located on an apartment building rooftop or a home. This closes the last mile of delivery so critical for low cost. From the building top, we connect through in-building wiring, using G.hn, Ethernet or other technologies to Starry’s award-winning, sleek touchscreen Wi-Fi Gateway, called Starry Station.
Together, all three pieces of technology deliver a seamless, whole-home, ultra-fast broadband experience for the consumer. All of these distributions are optimized, tracked and nurtured to provide consumers with a superior experience.
Unlike some “5G” networks, we do not need to deploy thousands of sites to provide coverage to a city. Rather, we need one or two dozen base station sites for comprehensive coverage, since each base station can have up to a 2 mile coverage radius.
Are you using commercial equipment for the millimeter wave links or did you develop your own antennas and radios?
Starry designed, developed and manufactured all of our technology in-house, save for our baseband technology.
As mentioned, we start with 802.11ac and .11ax chipsets, add proprietary software and leverage it to make sophisticated hybrid analog-digital beamformed smart antennas with high throughput and coverage. We have developed our own components and antennas, down to the integrated circuits, to optimize the performance and cost of the system.
Starry has an exceptionally strong systems engineering team that has enabled all of this.
What have been the biggest challenges deploying the service?
Our greatest challenges are also our greatest opportunities. This is a new and complex technology, and we’re the first in the market to deploy a network of this size serving paid subscribers. There are always surprises, but we’ve successfully built redundancy into our system to mitigate any unforeseen technical issues. Problems come up for sure, but we’ve navigated them well, and we learn and grow from our mistakes.
There is also a tremendous amount of pent-up demand for competition in the broadband market, especially as average data consumption increases among consumers, as more bandwidth hungry applications gain popularity. Those consumers wanting straightforward, reliable and affordable options are turning to Starry, so meeting that demand is a challenge.
Over the past year, our company has grown substantially, more than doubling our employee count, and we are continuing to hire for many open positions. At the same time, we are working extremely hard to bring more cities and subscribers online. We can’t grow fast enough, that is our biggest challenge!
Is your system compatible with 5G NR? Is there a need or benefit to be compatible?
Starry is not utilizing the 3GPP 5G NR ecosystem; rather, we utilize the more widely deployed 802.11 (Wi-Fi) radio ecosystem governed by the IEEE standards body for our baseband technology.
The vast majority of all wirelessly delivered data today globally is delivered over 802.11. So the standard is robust and the ecosystem highly efficient. And considering that 802.11 standards leap forward every three to four years, versus the 10 year cycle of 3GPP, has helped convince us that the technology will continue to rapidly evolve.
Since the vast majority of all data is delivered over 802.11, there is essentially no real benefit for us to be compatible with LTE to deliver fixed wireless.
Fixed wireless access is becoming quite fashionable: Verizon has begun deploying their 28 GHz service, AT&T is pursuing 5G mobile, Sprint and T-Mobile will presumably follow, Facebook’s Terragraph is claiming some success at 60 GHz and Google Fiber seems to be migrating to a millimeter wave last mile solution. In this increasingly crowded field, how will Starry stand out?
We welcome more competition and players within this space, because when more competition exists, the consumer wins. Prices generally go down, and the quality of service provided becomes much better, as well.
At Starry, everything we do centers around the consumer: our number one priority is economically providing world-class technology and service to all our broadband customers. Per our priority to provide excellent service to our subscribers, Starry has committed to no data caps, strict privacy rules and an adherence to net neutrality, because all of these things are in the best interest of the consumer.
So as this field becomes more crowded, we think that our customer first philosophy and culture will continue to make Starry’s light shine brightly.