This coming June, in Boston, a scrappy company called Starry will begin serving customers a whole new sort of wire-free Internet.
But it's not wi-fi as we know it, powered by thick fiber cables running through your walls, or provided by your cable company: It simply comes into the home through the air.
Starry, found by serial entrepreneur Chet Kanojia, has created dishwasher-sized rooftop towers to broadcast its signal (a "Starry Beam") across the airwaves, and in-home touch-screen routers ("Starry Stations"), shaped like a white watermelon slice, the sleek design of which might just make Apple envious. Traditional internet service providers should be shaking in their boots.
This June, it should also be noted, will mark exactly two years since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the case of American Broadcasting Cos. v. Aereo Inc. that the company Aereo, which Kanojia also founded, was to shut its doors after operating illegally by re-broadcasting the content of major television networks such as ABC and CBS.
Kanojia had no choice but to walk away from Aereo, the company he'd spent the past few years dreaming up, painstakingly building, promoting, and scaling. Just as building a company is no light work; nor is taking one apart. The walk, though, was slow: From June through the beginning of 2015, Kanojia was dealing with the legal and regulatory repercussions of the high court's decision, and trying to work with lawyers to parse what exactly he was allowed to do with the remains of Aereo's team, its intellectual property, and its actual hardware.
He worked to sell some of it--and about half of the company's hires moved on to new jobs.
"We had several potential buyers that were interested. So trying to sort through all that stuff, and I was super jammed," Kanojia tells Inc. "But the rest of the crew was--well, I mean there was nothing to do."
He and Joe Lipowski, the former CTO of Aereo, didn't want to lose their core team. "It was such a great crew, a bunch of people who were so passionate all together, even in pretty difficult circumstances," Kanojia says. Taking some downtime seemed appealing--but the two-dozen staffers they still had left would be tough to replace if they did want to give another startup a try. So he looked at Lipowski and said, "what do you want to do?"
Kanojia says he proposed turning away from television broadcasting through the Internet, and instead focusing on using radio frequencies to create a whole new way of accessing the Internet itself. More than half of Americans only have one choice of Internet Service Provider--and for 20 percent of potential customers, no broadband option is even available. "I think we can do this," Lipowski said. Around the turn of 2015, a team started exploring using millimeter-wave technology to create something like a fixed-Internet system.
"There was some basic validation that the team had to do to kind of prove the core technical assumptions. Just like with Aereo, once they had something to prove, they moved super fast," Kanojia says. Meanwhile, as winter 2015 turned into springtime, he was auctioning off the last bits of Aereo. Its customer list and trademark went to TiVo. Its patent portfolio to a patent risk-management company called RPX. Some hardware went to an IT consultant called Alliance Technologies.
"Then I was 100 percent available," Kanojia says. His management team had already hired some of the country's leading experts and researchers on high-frequency antennas, and the staff was beefing up headcount--Starry now employs around 50 in its New York and Boston offices. Lipowski took the new role of CTO full-time in April. Kanojia came on as CEO full-time in May.
The team field-tested the technology, and designed the hardware. They found a contract manufacturer abroad to create the Starry Beam--the really big rooftop transmitter--and the SubNode, or Starry Point beta, which picks up the signal from in a home. They also created and began manufacturing an in-home router customers can buy to customize their service. It's called the Starry Station, and features connection-health updates and child-safety monitoring.
On January 27, 2016, Kanojia, along with his executive team, took to the stage at a small theater in Manhattan, to debut Starry to the world. Its new website launched simultaneously.
Afterward, he told Inc.: 'It was a little overwhelming, because you've been heads-down, and then you see, 'oh my gosh, we've done all this!' And you think, 'oh my gosh how much more work is coming our way!?'"
At an impromptu press conference after, he was slung numerous questions about the intricacies of the technology behind Starry--which he attempted to put in layman speak, but came out as "the world's first millimeter-wave active phased array for consumer IP communications" built around an ethos "around not restricting usage, but increasing useage."
It's complicated. But not so complicated that Kanojia and his team aren't confident.
Of course, there were also questions that harkened back to the Aereo days. "What kind of legal situations might you find yourself in with this one?" And, "well, aren't there regulatory hurdles?" Just like that, Kanojia is already back in that role of answering as to whether he's willing to take on the big dogs--whom, everyone supposes, will surely attack.
"We don't anticipate it, but that doesn't mean it's not going to be a tough slog," is his initial response. But reached by phone later, Kanojia bemoaned the situation a bit. "What's with the fact that we are all asking this question: 'aren't you afraid of the regulatory backlash,' and we aren't asking 'who died and made these guy kings?' That's the real question."
So it begins. Again.