Companies join up in broadband Internet effort

By Chad D. Lerch | Muskegon Chronicle December 13, 2009 MUSKEGON COUNTY — The long-awaited rollout of broadband Internet to rural stretches of Muskegon County could gain momentum if federal stimulus funds are approved for the project. The much-maligned Arialink Internet company has partnered with AzulStar Networks of Grand Haven in an attempt to bring broadband service to Muskegon and surrounding counties. AzulStar has applied for stimulus funds to make the project a reality. Eduardo Bedoya, manager of Muskegon County’s information services, said the companies passed the federal government’s qualifications screening last month. Now, they enter a competitive process to receive federal stimulus dollars. Arialink and AzulStar could know as early as February whether they will receive part or all of the $7.5 million requested for the project, according to government records. The project would bring high-speed broadband Internet to Muskegon, Ottawa, Oceana and Newaygo counties. Several years ago, the state awarded Arialink a $2.2 million grant through the Digital Divide Investment Program to bring a high-speed Internet signal to five rural communities in Muskegon County: Moorland, Egelston, Cedar Creek and Holton townships and the village of Lakewood Club. Today, an estimated 80 percent of those communities are covered by Arialink’s project, of which only about $70,000 has yet to be spent, Bedoya said. But the state contract specified that 100 percent coverage must be met in those communities before Arialink could move to other parts of Muskegon County. So rolling out a countywide broadband program has stalled, Bedoya said. Reaching the goal of 100 percent coverage in those rural communities is a stretch with only $2.2 million in funding, Bedoya said, because several areas are so sparsely populated. Still, residents who have been waiting for years are eager to ditch dialup and get faster data service. Donald E. Studaven, supervisor of Blue Lake Township, told The Chronicle in August that he gets Arialink service at home, but the house across the street cannot. “It’s been frustrating,” he said in August. Ken Mahoney, chairman of the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners, said bringing AzulStar into such a project makes sense. “They’ve been successful in Grand Haven and a couple other places, so having enough money to start with might help,” Mahoney said. “That was Arialink’s biggest problem; They didn’t have enough money to begin with.” AzulStar launched in 2002 as Ottawa Wireless, offering Wi-Fi service in Grand Haven. The company offers WiMax broadband Internet and voice services to residential, business and governmental customers.