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WiMax to Muskegon

In one of the most significant WiMax deployments to date, regional service provider Arialink Broadband says it will build out a broadband wireless network for all of Muskegon County, Mich., using 802.16e equipment from Samsung Corp. .

The Muskegon County network is a public/private partnership funded by a $2.2 million federal grant from the Dept. of Housing and Urban Development along with a $4.5 million loan from the state of Michigan's Economic Development Corporation. Arialink will also invest $6 million of its own funds to build the network, says CEO Jason Schreiber. The company has committed to providing high-speed Internet access at speeds of 3 Mbit/s at a cost of $18.99 a month. Faster, higher-priced versions of the service will be available to residents and businesses in the area, providing mobile broadband at bandwidths of 10 Mbit/s and up.

"We expect to make money through subscriber revenues," says Schreiber, "The base level of service will be at very low cost, but our business model is based on incremental revenues and adding services like voice and other features."

To be rolled out initially in June in Egelston Township, near the city of Muskegon, the southern Michigan project has been described in press reports as "the first commercial WiMax deployment in North America" -- a characterization that would be news to WiMax service companies like TowerStream, which says it is providing WiMax services to customers in New York City and elsewhere in the Northeast. (See WiMax: Beyond the Hype.)

Clearly, however, the Muskegon deployment -- originally conceived as a low-cost alternative access service for low-income residents -- will be a step forward for wide-area, mobile wireless broadband services based on the newly ratified 802.16e standard. (See WiMax: Ready for Closeup.)

"When we initially submitted our application, WiMax was pretty much hyperbole," says Schreiber. "But it became clear that Samsung was ready to deploy this technology. We believe that WiMax is the future. That's our strategy -- it's where the service providers will ultimately converge."

The shift from a more conventional WiFi mesh network to WiMax gives the county-wide network an entirely new customer base, including enterprise users, says Eduardo Bedoya.

"The initial project was basically a fixed-wireless implementation, but this adds mobility," says Bedoya. "It will benefit a tremendous amount of industries. The capability of WiMax on the commercial side will be a tremendous boost to the economic development of the county."

Arialink will use 16 large towers along with 110 microcell stations, on buildings and utility poles, to cover virtually the entire county. The network will run over the 2.5Ghz frequency band, affording ample channel bandwidth but requiring a relatively high number of transmitters to achieve full coverage. Unlike other networks that vendors have called "pre-WiMax," says Schreiber, the Muskegon system will be fully compliant with the new 802.16e standard.

"Samsung is fully commited to [WiMax] even if it requires a forklift replacement," Schreiber comments. "When a $22 billion arm of the largest corporation in Korea makes that kind of commitment, they have the resources to deliver."

Full deployment of the network will be completed by the end of 2007, says Bedoya.

— Richard Martin, Senior Editor, Unstrung

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