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15 November 2018

Quantenna deal suggests dark clouds hang over Starry

Starry, the new network operator on the block in the US, has selected WiFi silicon specialist Quantenna, deploying both WiFi 5 (802.11ac) and WiFi 6 (802.11ax) chipsets in its base station technology as it attempts to disrupt the broadband delivery market. However, from where we’re standing, it seems the start-up is showing early signs of money struggles.

Despite dodging our requests for interview, Starry continues to be an intriguing prospect after first launching a totally non-5G approach to point-to-multipoint fixed wireless technology two years ago, to much hype. Our previous coverage has tried to maintain a level head and question how Starry can survive given the rising costs of spectrum and other obstacles. The latest installment sees Starry plan to optimize Quantenna’s QSR10GU and QSR10GU-AX products, with 8×8 MIMO and advanced MU-MIMO, for millimeter wave bands, which Quantenna says brings cost savings to Starry’s operations.

Starry’s chances of success were seen to be boosted earlier this year when it tapped WiFi 6 chips from Marvell, combined with its own mmWave, point-to-multipoint fixed broadband transceivers, so this week’s enrollment of Quantenna suggests Starry wants to offer varying qualities of service, as we know Quantenna chips are more expensive than Marvell’s. We are working on establishing comments from both silicon parties and will provide an update as soon as we receive any responses.

That said, Starry has also previously talked about upgrading from WiFi 5 to 6, yet it has just selected both chipsets from Quantenna, further implying a spate of cost saving activities at the start-up. The possibility of transferring over to 5G instead has also been raised and the pressure is now on to build out its promised fixed wireless services commercially in 16 major US markets before the end of this year. Another issue for Starry is its lack of fiber assets for backhaul. So, is this the first sign of Starry feeling the effects of the rising cost of spectrum in which it operates?

We last reported on Starry back in the middle of last year, run by Chet Kanojia the one-time CEO of the now defunct Aereo. Kanojia is an expert in antennas, and essentially this is an antenna play. It uses 600 MHz of spectrum in the 37 to 40 GHz band, which the FCC has not yet finalized rules for, and then uses a box inside the home to convert the signal to 802.11ax WiFi which, after all, companies like AT&T and Verizon are going to have to do anyway, since most broadband in-home is delivered wirelessly.

Financial research firm Oppenheimer said at the time, in a client note, that it calculates that it will cost Starry about $2 billion to cover 70% of the densely populated areas of the US with a fixed wireless network. To do the same with 5G would cost $35 billion to $50 billion, and could be twice that if the operator also needs to deploy fiber. It is offering speeds up to 200 Mbps at $50 a month. The recent 5G announcement by Verizon was for 300 Mbps, but at the cost of $70 a month, yet Starry’s fees are significantly higher than other, more established wireless internet services.

These costs have risen partly due to expensive AP technology with advanced phased array arrangements, and also because of the dense areas being targeted by Starry over rural regions, meaning more base stations to occupy its mmWave spectrum.

The addition of Quantenna’s capabilities to the smart antenna RF technology in Starry’s base station, coined Starry Beam, aims to provide end users with ultrafast speeds, increased bandwidth capacity and extended range. The collaboration will cover Los Angeles, Washington DC and New York City.

Following on from Faultline Online Reporter’s 5G-centric conversation with the WiFi Alliance last week, this week’s announcement is a fitting follow up for the role WiFi technologies will play in 5G’s rise. Starry may well be cheaper than whatever 5G push the major telcos can offer, but when true 5G deployments sweep the US in the coming years and price wars ensue, its relevance will be in jeopardy.