Seeking Profits, MuniFi Player Now Backs WiMAX

Azulstar, a Grand Haven, Mich.-based MuniFi company, is shifting its focus away from WiFi to WiMAX when it comes to municipal wireless networks. Starting with Grand Haven, Azulstar will eventually roll out WiMAX across 15 cities in the mid- and southwest U.S., including Albuquerque, N.M..

Azulstar is using 3.6 GHz licensed spectrum for this WiMAX upgrade. The company explains that since it couldn’t get spectrum in Sacramento or Silicon Valley in California, nor in Winston-Salem, N.C., it decided to bow out or take a reduced role in those projects.

Tyler van Houwelingen, Azulstar founder and CEO added, “WiMAX dramatically improves the economics, performance and reliability of municipal wireless and is one of the most significant technologies of our time. We applaud the FCC for making more WiMAX spectrum available in the USA. Our customers will be delighted with the service.”

Azulstar’s move is consistent with my skepticism around the one-size-fits-all WiFi strategy adopted by some cities and towns. These projects were destined to run into headwinds, in sharp contrast to what I call ComMuniFi projects like the Meraki Network in San Francisco. MetroFi, EarthLink, now bankrupt Mobile Pro, Kite networks and several others have been bloodied badly. Azulstar explained its decision to back away from WiFi:

The reality is that WiFi simply does not work very well for municipal access other than for niche applications, and is very expensive at $150K-plus per square mile to do it right.

Azulstar will use WiMAX for both backhaul and access, and will offer 20 megabits per second for business users and half that for residential users. I am still waiting to hear from the company about the pricing. The networks will be based on gear from Airspan Networks and Redline Communications. The company tells me that “WiFi will remain an option in hot spots and the downtown areas for some time.”

But as the transition to WiMAX progresses, many WiFi access points will come down, Azulstar says. In other words, Azulstar will eventually transition from a free & paid WiFi model to paid WiMAX service. A focus on a business model, how quaint!