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Why Starry Faces an Uphill Battle in Its Quest to Shake Up Home Internet Service

It has been tried before and hasn't worked all that well.

Starry

Starry’s notion of fast Internet service wirelessly beamed to your home sounds great. And it is, in theory.

By using multiple antennas and a range of different frequencies, Starry claims it can deliver gigabit speeds that are faster than most cable connections today.

The problem is that, new technology aside, Starry is still using an underlying approach known as fixed wireless that has stumbled over time.

Clearwire, for example, used an earlier 4G technology known as WiMax to deliver home Internet and mobile hotspots. And there are still some ongoing efforts here in the U.S., such as Vivint in Utah, as well as services in India and elsewhere.

But there are two big challenges with the fixed wireless approach.

The first is the technology piece. In general, it has been hard to deliver Internet over the air that is faster and as reliable as that served up using cable, fiber or other wires. Plus, while the last little bit of the service is wireless, delivering it requires setting up costly infrastructure in each city (and each community, really) in which a company plans to offer service.

Starry will also likely face challenges in setting up wireless stations including the often time-consuming and costly task of getting local approval for each tower it wants to use to beam Internet to homes.

The second issue is business. Delivering the Internet to homes is controlled by big cable and phone companies that will fight back hard to protect the cash cow. Starry will need to prepare for the lobbying onslaught as well as the incumbent’s marketing tactic of providing a suite of TV, data and phone service to compete against rivals.

On that front, Starry’s answer is pretty simple. It is betting on a growing number of cord-cutters who are happy to dump it all for just really fast Internet and rely on over-the-top services like Netflix and Hulu for video.

“We believe we will be the choice for Internet-only,” Starry CTO Joe Lipowski said in a telephone interview.

Starry plans to start small, with a test in the Boston area this summer, though it clearly has bigger ambitions.

“Color me skeptical on the plans for a national footprint — it may be possible to achieve some decent market share in certain carefully targeted markets where the incumbents are weak, but it’s very tough to achieve significant market share on a widespread basis,” said Jackdaw Research analyst Jan Dawson.

The threat of the big boys has never been an issue for Starry founder Chet Kanojia, although his last venture — Aereo, which took on the entire TV industry — didn’t fare so well. “At least this time he doesn’t have the obvious legal issues that he had with Aereo,” Dawson said.

On the technology front, one key is the difference between how the system operates under ideal conditions versus the real world. It makes a big difference how close a home is to the tower, says wireless consultant Chetan Sharma. Plus, things slow down in bad weather, such as storms or high winds.

“Without line of sight, the signal will get weaker fairly quickly,” Sharma said.

Lipowski admitted that weather can be an issue, but that by placing wireless towers every kilometer or two, it won’t see the same levels of flakiness that other services that tried to stretch many miles between each tower experienced.

Of course, more towers means more cost, as well as having to lease space and potentially get zoning approval for each one. Lipowski said the advantage is that Starry’s gear will be much smaller than the kinds of gear used by cellular providers.

Starry is also using a special kind of antenna, known as an active phase array, that allows the signal to be adjusted on the fly to better reach each home. That combined with multiple antennas should also improve performance over past fixed wireless services.

Lipowski said its predecessors in fixed wireless came at a time where there wasn’t enough processing power to handle multiple antenna arrays.

“A few years ago that really wasn’t available to them,” he said.

Then there is also the matter of getting the signal from the towers back to the Internet. Starry says it is using a mix of traditional fiber as well as some wireless technologies, but not using any of the technology or warehouses used by Aereo.

Speed is of course a top concern for customers when it comes to home Internet.

With previous efforts, speeds haven’t been that great, though Starry says its technology is capable of delivering gigabit speeds to the home. That’s pretty fast, way faster than most cable connections.

To do this, Starry is using a combination of frequencies including some very high ones known as millimeter waves. Those allow high speeds, but can be easily blocked or interfered with. Millimeter waves also can’t penetrate inside a building, so Starry customers will need an appropriate outdoor spot to mount their receivers.

That said, Starry says it doesn’t plan to operate a fleet of trucks to install its gear and promises it will have equipment that the average consumer can position and install.

“A lot of people find it unpleasant to wait for cable guy,” Lipowski said.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.