Susan and Kevin Daniel, who have owned and operated Horizon Cable in Point Reyes Station for three decades, are nearing completion of their long-awaited plans to bring broadband internet to Bolinas, where residents are desperate for better service. The couple pressed ahead with the project this spring, despite the cost and labor involved in meeting a 40 percent increase in data usage in their current service area as customers shelter-in-place.
“It’s been a challenging time. We are all exhausted,” said Ms. Daniel, who is one of the company’s five staffers. “But it’s very gratifying to feel like we are able to make it so our customers can do their school from home, their work from home.”
Horizon serves around 1,350 people in West Marin, mostly in Point Reyes Station, Olema and Inverness, but some in Stinson Beach. The plan to expand service to Bolinas has been in the works for years, but has been delayed by heavy costs, a complicated permitting process and competition with a larger company, Inyo Networks, which recently brought high-speed fiber optic broadband to Nicasio.
Inyo, a company based in Southern California, received a $1.87 million grant two years ago to deploy broadband infrastructure to Bolinas, which, like Nicasio, made the short list of unserved priority areas in the state. The project, which had the support of the county and the Bolinas Community Public Utility District, was slated for completion this May, but never got off the ground.
Meanwhile, Mr. Daniel toiled away at setting up his own service, which included running a fiber optic cable under the Bolinas Lagoon that hooked up to his existing infrastructure in Seadrift. He says he has spent over $50,000 in obtaining permits. He told the Light that if all goes well, downtown Bolinas residents could purchase broadband from his company as early as this month.
The added profit from more customers will be welcomed by the Daniels, helping to balance the hefty investments they made in Bolinas and the mounting overhead costs involved in keeping up with customer needs during the pandemic.
The jump in data usage over the past three months matched what the company predicted would happen over the next year and a half, given the overall trend of rising usage.
The Daniels say the increase reflects both the shift toward working and schooling from home, and the increase in people living full time in second homes.
In some cases, Horizon customers upgraded to higher speeds to account for more users in their households, and that switch generated more revenue. Yet for most, the change simply involved more labor for the company. Horizon employees, clad in personal protective equipment, have been exceptionally busy making house calls to help people tailor their services to new needs.
In addition to increased labor, the company has had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to fortify and expand existing infrastructure. Among the improvements, Mr. Daniel said he is increasing the backhaul connection from his local system to the internet, which involves purchasing new head-end equipment, and adding more fiber optic nodes and splitting existing nodes for additional bandwidth within his system.
“These are all very large capital expenditures that we’ve had to make in a short amount of time,” he said.
His bottom line is suffering, and the Daniels have applied for a paycheck protection loan through the Small Business Administration to help make ends meet.
Mr. Daniel declined to disclose how much the Bolinas project is costing him, but he remained positive about the expansion, saying that residents have a real need for upgraded services.
In 2017, the California Public Utilities Commission published a draft report titled “High Impact Areas for Broadband Availability” and included Bolinas in a group of 13 areas thought to “represent the best ‘bang for the buck’ for deploying broadband internet infrastructure to more California households.” Aside from Cobb in Lake County, most of the other areas were in Southern California.
Inyo applied for a grant, promising to bring the rate for connectivity in Bolinas to maximum speeds of one gigabit for $90 a month. For perspective, that’s about seven to nine times faster than the 100 to 130 megabits of connectivity that most Marin residents get using high-speed internet from Comcast. Most Bolinas residents have a maximum of 5 megabits per second, provided by AT&T.
Inyo proposed bringing broadband to Bolinas by connecting it to the fiber optic network it recently built in Nicasio, where service to 220 homes began two years ago. Sixty percent of the $2.5 million Nicasio project was funded by the state commission; residents raised most of the rest.
According to Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, Inyo renewed the grant for the Bolinas project for another year before it expired, but in the past six months, communication dropped off between the company and the county, which had contributed funds for consulting costs. “There’s something going on,” he said. “Inyo is not being responsive.”
Inyo representatives did not return calls or emails to the Light over the past month.
Supervisor Rodoni, who sits on a county task force dedicated to bringing broadband to all areas of the county, said, “While the Nicasio project was very successful, I think the cost of the installation was higher than projected, and that’s just the reality of working in West Marin, with its narrow roads and things that can add to cost.”
The supervisor expressed his support for Horizon. “Covid-19 has demonstrated a tremendous need for good-quality internet in all areas of West Marin, if we continue to work and do schoolwork at home,” he said.
Lyndon Comstock, a board member for the Bolinas Community Public Utility District, which had supported Inyo on behalf of residents frustrated with their poor internet service, said the district had not heard from the company, either. “Inyo has vanished off the radar screen for Bolinas,” he said.
“We continue to have a strong need here for something better than AT&T,” Mr. Comstock wrote to the Light. “So far as we’ve been told by frustrated community members, AT&T will not even offer internet service to any new customers in Bolinas and the ones who are on it have relatively low speed service, not nearly what one would consider broadband speed service.”
Mr. Daniel said he plans to offer speeds on par with the county average, at around 100 to 130 megabits. The hope is to offer faster speeds down the line.
In the past, he expressed frustration that the community and the county had lent their support to Inyo; in 2017, he filed a confidential objection with the state utilities commission in hopes of halting Inyo’s efforts.
And he never stopped working on his project. “We’ve had lots of competition from lots of different kinds of places, and we keep doing our thing. I think we’ve stayed up with the technology for a small business with limited means. Our real strength is our local customer service: we just keep doing our thing,” he said.