Azulstar gives WiMAX services a jump

Tyler van Houwelingen, founder and CEO of AzulStar, a company that joins with companies, governmental agencies and private investors to offer mobile broadband voice, data and video services in West Michigan and other regions.

Jake Himmelspach, October 13, 2008 - Some businesses are patiently waiting for the new WiMAX network, a wireless network much like WiFi only faster, more reliable and with a signal that carries over longer distances. Others already have WiMAX service through a company named AzulStar.

“There’s been a goal in the industry to come up with another way to do cable or DSL, or another way to break some of the monopoly that the cable and phone companies have in the market, and the promise was always wireless,” said Tyler van Houwelingen, founder and CEO of AzulStar.

AzulStar was formed in late 2002 in Europe, before van Houwelingen moved back to his hometown of Grand Haven. In 2003, AzulStar set up a WiFi network that spanned the city of Grand Haven. AzulStar also has a large network in New Mexico.

But before AzulStar could finish building its original network, WiMAX was announced at the end of 2003, with plans to be implemented in 2006.

“It takes what we’re doing and puts it on steroids,” said van Houwelingen. “It takes a formula that we had, which was pretty powerful, and allows us now to do it across broad geography.”

AzulStar was licensed to provide WiMAX service last January and immediately bought solutions from Alvarion, the worldwide leading provider of WiMAX and wireless broadband network equipment, and started testing the system in Grand Haven and New Mexico. “We basically overlaid our WiFi networks and started slowly migrating everybody to the WiMAX networks,” he said.

One of the main differences between WiMAX and WiFi is the size of geographical regions that can be covered: WiMAX covers miles as opposed to feet. Reliability and speed are two more differences.

“WiFi was made originally in 1998. We’ve got a decade more of technology advances for them to have put in this thing,” said van Houwelingen, mentioning the broader range and incredibly faster speed.

“In terms of reliability — I’m sure you’ve been in a hot spot, a hotel or whatever, and haven’t been able to connect. (WiFi) works pretty good but it’s unpredictable technology. WiMAX was designed from the ground up to do just this. It was WiFi 2.0, designed to do this citywide stuff that we’ve been working on for years.”

WiMAX will begin to pick up momentum, van Houwelingen believes, by next year as more consumers buy the first WiMAX laptops, which came out on Oct. 8.

“Sprint and Intel are officially launching WiMAX here in the United States and they’re doing it in Baltimore. Intel now has the first laptops with WiMAX built in and the WiFi.”

As WiMAX-ready laptops and cell phones become more popular, users will be able to access networks by purchasing temporary passes and, in some areas, will receive service for free. While Clearwire, a high-speed Internet service provider offering WiMAX services, focuses primarily on mobile users, AzulStar offers WiMAX services to businesses, homes and governmental customers.

“We’re really focusing on a very fast, high-end connection typical of a business or an enterprise customer,” said van Houwelingen. “I think it’s best to focus on one or two niches and do those very well. The difference between us and Clearwire is they really have to focus on the mass market, because they’re going to get a lot of customers. They have to set their network to that mass market. It’s a trade-off: They’re going for a lot of customers with lower bandwidth; we’re going for a few customers with a lot of bandwidth.”

Van Houwelingen said that for some of the company’s larger customers, AzulStar will install more than one WiMAX access point if the customer needs more bandwidth. For companies that already have a service, such as AT&T, AzulStar can provide a WiMAX connection for additional bandwidth or as a backup source in case the customer loses access from its traditional supplier. In that case, the customer’s Internet access automatically switches from the traditional supplier to the WiMAX backup, which is just as fast, if not faster, than cable or DSL connections. Speeds are available up to 6 Mbps for the home and 100 Mbps symmetric for business connections.

Customers can subscribe to the service for either monthly or annual fees. For businesses, service starts at under $275 per month.

“They just pick whatever speed they want. If they get a speed and want to double it the next day, literally they just call us, we hit a button and double it. There’s no contracts. It’s pretty reasonable Internet,” said van Houwelingen.

AzulStar joins with companies, governmental agencies and private investors to offer mobile broadband voice, data and video services in West Michigan and other regions. The company has been testing with about 100 customers since February and has recently launched an ad campaign.

Soon AzulStar WiMAX service will be available in Lansing, Ann Arbor, Indianapolis and other cities.

“The Clearwire stuff is going to be great. What the city of Grand Rapids did is fantastic. It’s going to be a big success. I really see what’s coming,” he said. “But we’re both going to succeed. That’s what’s cool for us.”