Starry, Inc. brings free ‘beamed’ internet to local families in need

By Lydia You

A team of Starry reps and their astronaut mascot deliver free internet and Chromebooks to residents of Mar Vista Gardens; free internet across the public housing complex unlocks a world of possibilities
Photos by Zsuzsi Steiner

For Samantha Gomez, an internet connection is a creative conduit. As a resident of Mar Vista Gardens, a housing project located in Del Rey, and a film student at California State University, Northridge, she relies on fast and stable WiFi for almost every aspect of her life, including answering emails, attending online classes, and researching and collaborating on film projects.

It wasn’t always that easy, though. When she was 7, Samantha and her family immigrated to South Central Los Angeles from El Salvador, where she found the language barrier and lack of resources to be particularly challenging. “Going to school was a bit of a nightmare for me,” she recalled, “As a child, since I didn’t have a computer, I had to type my assignments on a computer in the classroom… and if those didn’t work, I had to go to the library to finish typing up a paper, or to print out something. It was super difficult… and at the time, we didn’t even have internet.”

The challenges of inadequate technology access are especially exacerbated in the age of the pandemic, in which we access everything from school to telehealth to entertainment through the web.

In light of this, Starry, a wideband hybrid fiber wireless internet service provider, has recently partnered with the Housing Authority of the City of Los Angeles (HACLA) to provide free internet access to over 600 households in local public housing complex Mar Vista Gardens until the end of 2020. They have also donated 21 Chromebooks to households in the complex identified as having inadequate device access, which a Starry astronaut mascot delivered on Aug. 15.

“At our core, Starry’s mission is to connect as many people as possible to high-quality, affordable broadband,” said Virginia Lam Abrams, Senior Vice President of Government Affairs and Strategic Advancement at Starry. “With the COVID-19 health crisis, it’s really brought into much clearer focus how critical having broadband in the home is for everyone.”

In June, Starry began its partnership with HACLA to provide ultra low-cost broadband internet for just $15/month to all residents of Mar Vista Gardens as part of its Starry Connect program, an initiative aimed to close the digital divide by providing those in affordable housing with low-cost internet plans. Starry Connect is unique in that it boasts “30 mbps symmetrical speeds, all in-home WiFi equipment and installation, and personalized customer care to all its subscribers for $15 per month,” according to a press release on the program, an ultra low rate for a high-speed, broadband internet connection that normally ranges from $60 to $100 a month.

Furthermore, Starry Connect does not require a long-term contract, credit checks, or other stringent individual requirements, lowering the barriers of access for families in need, and has guaranteed the fixed $15/month price for the next 5 years. “Just in a month they signed over 100 folks to that affordable broadband system,” said Joel Rogers, Resident Services Manager at HACLA.

The decision to forego the monthly rate and provide free internet access to the entire housing project came on Aug. 24 as several major California school districts announced they would begin the school year online. The need for fast and stable internet is especially critical since 36% of the households in Mar Vista Gardens have school-aged children who will now spend much of their days on virtual learning platforms, according to HACLA.

The Starry Connect program began in 2018, and has since provided low-cost, high-speed internet to over 16,000 units of public and affordable housing. Both HACLA and Starry Connect work with the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) ConnectHome-USA program, an initiative started under the Obama administration to encourage private and public sectors to work together to close the digital divide in HUD-assisted housing.

Specialized attention towards ensuring people in affordable housing have high-speed internet access — defined as fast connection, enough bandwidth, and a computer, laptop, or tablet — is especially important considering that “low-income households with school-age children are four times more likely to be without high-speed internet access than their middle-or-upper-income counterparts,” according to the Pew Research Center. Furthermore, studies show that families of color, particularly American Indian, Black and Hispanic households, are disproportionately underconnected, underlining the importance of providing accessible internet to residents across HACLA households, which are 76.90% Hispanic and 19.77% Black/African American.

Starry is able to pursue partnerships with affordable housing projects and keep their costs low due to their innovative wireless technology. Starry’s unique wireless technology allows the company to “beam internet through the sky as fast as fiber,” according to its website, through an innovative antenna that can be mounted on top of radio towers and buildings without having to tear up streets for cabling. Starry’s receivers pick up the signal from the “Starry Beam” and “plug into the building’s existing wiring to deliver internet to the router in your home,” which “blankets” the home in low cost, high-speed internet.

“They are a new player…they were installing these antennae in high rise buildings and they were able to shoot their signal in different directions to other buildings,” said Rogers. “It was very innovative because it doesn’t require a lot of wiring, it was not as invasive as cabling or installing fiber optics and hence not as expensive, and the added advantage was that it was 5G, and that came with the promise of more bandwidth with no caps.”

“Our technology is our advantage and we use that technology advantage to be able to serve every community,” said Abrams.

Starry’s partnership with HACLA is just one step closer towards figuring out the digital equity puzzle that ensures all people — including school children, working-class citizens, and parents — have the resources they need to thrive in an increasingly digital world.

“I feel like we’re one of the lucky communities…during the pandemic. We’ve all had our basic necessities met, including technology,” Gomez remarked.