Why tech is impossible for millions of Americans


Coronavirus is making the digital divide worse. Starry CEO Chet Kanojia explains how we can fix it.

Dan Patterson, senior producer for CNET and CBS News, spoke with Chet Kanojia, CEO of internet service Starry, Inc. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Chet Kanojia: The big reason why what’s developed is where you have mobile providers, they’re competitive. There used to be four major providers, now there are three major providers, but the cable companies have the ability to package mobile connections as well. So you have people solving for different niches, right? 

You have your preferred carriers, for example, that are focused on the Hispanic population, the immigrant population, or things like that. Really the underlying theme is there’s a lot of competition in those markets, whereas in the fixed-line business, there is no competition, practically speaking–that’s what really drives the divide, because these networks are really expensive to build. 

SEE: Rural America is in the midst of a mental health crisis. Tech could help some patients see a way forward. (cover story PDF) (TechRepublic)

Most companies are optimizing for returning shareholders or whatever other financial metric that is and just find no practical way of being able to justify that investment. Then that breeds sort of policy decisions within those companies.

And then it becomes sort of a systemic thing where every new bill, every network is designed to produce a lot of cash, but not really designed to fulfill a societal role that it also happens to play. Why? Because these are unregulated private networks and if you compare that to utilities, electricity, water, gas, etc., they are regulated, whether they’re private or not, they’re regulated. 

They have certain societal requirements imposed on them. I think that’s really the light that’s being shined on the structural part of some of these businesses. It’s just a question mark and it requires a lot of investment. As a result, these are hard businesses to take on and get into, which is why you don’t find anybody in Silicon Valley financing any of these, because there’s no quick buck to be made here.

It’s hard grinding work. Their geographic divides, as well as socioeconomic, and if you take the idea of the rural parts of the country which encompasses remote dense parts of the country. You could have a really nice fabulous town in the middle of a valley somewhere, whether it’s Kalispell, MT, or whether it’s Bend, OR–it could be any number of those kinds of towns, you have similar things to merge.

Even within cities, geography actually starts playing a role because for whatever set of historical reasons, we’ve had zoning that clumped, for example, low income housing in certain areas. So providers build networks by essentially avoiding those areas because then they don’t have to finance the expense of building a network within those areas.

Geography and socioeconomics and cities tend to go hand in hand, to some extent. New York city is an odd example just because you have a $50 million apartment next to a student apartment or whatever it is, but for the most part, the country’s low income or depressed housing tends to get clustered in. 

Yes, people have been making strides over the last few decades in terms of 80/10, 80/20, or 90/10 types of housing and things along those lines. But, you still have very large blocks that are geographically isolated and the cost of providing connectivity that is just astronomical.

Dan Patterson: Starry is an essential service during the pandemic and much of what you do kind of gives you a broad view of network trends. So, what are you seeing in terms of network performance and traffic during the pandemic?

Chet Kanojia: Consumption even on the downlink side is nearly doubled because people are staying at home and there’s higher concurrency. I think the biggest trend that we’re seeing is the overall uplink performance and uplink consumption. What I mean by that is, most networks obviously have a downstream and an upstream component to them. 

Depending on how the network is constructed, you could have an asymmetrical network, meaning it has a giant pipe coming down, but a very narrow straw going up. That’s the cheapest way to build a network–the vast majority of the networks in this country are built that way. Cable companies have typically done that. So what we’re seeing is the network consumption on the uplink has dramatically gone up, it’s almost three to four times during daytime hours and the ratio used to be 10 to 1.

Now, it’s about 5 to 1, down to up and that’s really a trend that’s going to continue in my view, just because this is going to change a lot of people’s habits. People are realizing that a certain workforce can work from home or can be equally productive or there may be parts of the day where they will work from home and all of those collaboration tools that we’re now beginning to get used to are shining the light on inadequacy of that kind of a network topology. 

We think that that’s also going to be a massive area of investment and improvement over the next several years to bring symmetry to the network so that you have equal ability to download upload stream, do video calls because, if you’re an older cable system, you’re lucky if you’re getting a megabit or two megabits a second up. To do a high-def video call without a whole lot of packet loss, you need at least 20 to 25 megabits a second up.

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