Making a fast return to the innovation scene on Wednesday—or rather, he never truly left—CEO Chet Kanojia unveiled Starry, his latest startup, in New York.
As we previously reported, Kanojia and other expatriates from Aereo have been developing this project in stealth under the codename Project Decibel. With Starry, Kanojia dives into wireless broadband while also taking a stab at the still unrealized possibilities of the Internet of Things.
Starry, based in Boston and New York, has developed a millimeter-wave band, active phased array to connect consumers to the Internet. That is a rather technical way of saying extremely high frequency wireless communications. It is part of a plan to set up a nationwide network that would deliver wireless connectivity to homes, with speeds up to one gigabit per second.
Demand for broadband access continues to increase, but few new companies are getting into this market. “The reason there’s no competition is, number one, cost of construction,” Kanojia said, referring to the hefty expense of laying more cables underground to connect more households. “Any new entrant is just not well capitalized enough to take this on.”
Other roadblocks to more competition, he said, include the spectrum costs and certain technology limits for alternatives such as cellular communications.
Starry, Kanojia said, is about a year old with 45 to 50 people on staff trying to take on incumbents in terrestrial-based Internet services. “Wired infrastructure is just difficult,” he said. “I just don’t imagine people digging up trenches anymore.”
Starting in the summer, Boston will be Starry’s first beta market, Kanojia said, with announcements to come in the spring regarding other markets for future expansion. Pricing for Internet access through the company has yet to be announced.
Kanojia is also positioning Starry to be part of the smart-home, connected-devices trend.
The Starry Station Wi-Fi router has an easy-to-see touchscreen that displays how strong the Internet connection is in the home. It can also readily show which devices are on the home network and is also designed to support future Internet of Things features.
Looking over the device brings to mind other companies, such as Wink, that have tried to create central hubs for connecting to gadgets in smart homes. Kanojia said many people have multiple smart devices, and more are on the way—though the necessity of some products for the connected home seem a bit dubious. “I’m not sure how many refrigerators are going to get connected, or what the value of that is,” he said.
That comment speaks to a challenge that everyone in the Internet of Things market faces, trying to convince consumers that they need to trick out their homes with smart gadgets. Wink is still trying to capture mainstream appeal, even after Quirky, the once-celebrated New York company that spun Wink out, went bankrupt last September. There may be potential for the Internet of Things and smart homes, but getting the masses on board remains a hurdle.
There are some devices, Kanojia said, such as thermostats, cameras, and other sensors that can add value to consumers’ homes. He said more must be done, though, before the average person can really take advantage of such technologies. “A lot of this has been stymied in the market because the heart of the digital home doesn’t exist today,” he said.
That is where he thinks the Starry Station can come into play, monitoring connected devices, Internet speed, and local area network performance. Network-level applications such as ad blockers, security, and parental controls could also run through the Wi-Fi station to cover all the devices linked to it. The router is priced at about $350, and can be reserved now at Starry.com. Preorders will start on February 5 at Amazon, with shipping to begin in March.
Given the timing of Starry’s birth, it looks like Kanojia and the team might have gotten started in the waning days of Aereo, if not sooner. New York-based Aereo was an attempt by Kanojia to turn the television market on its head, but it ended up becoming a courtroom drama.
Through a system of tiny antennae set up around the country, Aereo’s subscribers could stream broadcast shows via the Internet to mobile devices while away from home. The problem was Aereo had no intention of sharing the fees it collected from its users with industry incumbents such as broadcasters, satellite, and cable television providers. Again and again, Kanojia argued Aereo did not violate copyrights or other regulations, but the incumbents fought back, and won, in a legal war that rose all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court—which ultimately led to Aereo’s demise.
These days, many broadcasters and premium television service providers offer apps of their own to let their subscribers watch broadcast shows on mobile devices when not at home.
Now Kanojia is busy with Starry, and some investors from his time with Aereo, such as IAC, FirstMark Capital, and High Line Venture Partners, are onboard again. Backers of Starry also include Tiger Global, KKR, and Quantum Strategic Partners (no word yet on how much money has been raised). This time around, Kanojia’s plans are not as controversial, but he remains ambitious nonetheless: “We’re just getting started.”