For many years, reliable high-speed Internet service in the remote bayside village of Marshall has registered only as far-flung fodder for residents’ technological daydreams. Cable giants like Comcast and AT&T see the out-of-the-way trip for a small number of customers as inconsistent with their bottom line and even Point Reyes Station-based Horizon Cable TV excludes the town from its coverage area.
Left with the alternatives of archaic dial-up or laggy and expensive satellite service, many residents opted for an affordable but spotty $60 to $80-a-month 2,000 Kbps (often only 900 Kbps) connection from TeleScience Networks, an Inverness-based broadband Internet firm serving West Marin. But the company announced this summer that it would go offline in late September, leaving customers once again waylaid in a twilight zone of anachronism.
As Marshall residents panicked and awaited digital pangs, a small group of locals had already teamed up with a Muir Beach rural Internet service innovator to begin fashioning a cheap, fast and reliable Local Area Network (LAN) option. It launched in early October and has elated its 50 or so customers ever since.
“The savior for us was this guy named Leighton Hills,” said Corey Goodman, who hosts one of the transmitting receivers on his Marshall ranch. “He looked at everything and said, ‘Think you could set it up cheaper, faster, better than what [TeleScience] did.’ If he hadn’t appeared, I don’t know what we would have done.”
When Marshall resident Mary Halley returned in July from travels in Guatemala, which included accessing a high-speed connection in the heart of the third-world jungle, she knew that there had to be some way to improve her digital life at home. Halley began recruiting Hills, who had installed her Internet at a part-time home in Muir Beach, to set up a similar system near Tomales Bay.
Seven years ago, Hills, a commercial real estate manager, and a neighbor built a functioning LAN system that beams connections from a Mt. Tamalpais radio device and now serves 140 of the 145 homes in Muir Beach. Through lots of tinkering over the years, including finding the right wireless device in Silicon Valley-based Ubiquiti’s swift and weather resistant NanoStation, Hills designed a fast and problem-free service that pleased many of his customers.
Hills was hesitant to take on the challenge in Marshall, but agreed when he learned there was ample support from the community, including from Goodman, who had agreed to host a transmitter, and from Matt Cuyler, a former engineer who promised to lend his assistance to the installation process.
First, Hills looked for a line-of-sight to a data feed, like the Mt. Tam access point he was using in Muir Beach. “It happened that at the top of [Goodman’s] ranch it just had a peek of a view of a ridge back in Novato that is an Internet access point,” Hills said. “The data feed from these two providers is two megabytes. That was enough.”
After opening an account with the providers, Hills needed to establish another line-of-sight to the homes and businesses at the water line in Marshall, since they were not visible from the ranch’s new NanoStation, which both receives and extends the radio signal. Hills and Cuyler traveled to the west side of Tomales Bay and convinced property owners to let them install multiple devices, at Shallow Beach and other locations, that had clear views of the ranch’s transmitter and could beam the connection back to the shoreline properties on the other side of the bay.
“It was making sure that we had a spot that saw the signal and then putting a small antennae there and being able to direct the signal across the bay,” Cuyler said. “It’s like aiming mirrors at mirrors.” Cuyler and Hills soon began offering 4,000 Kbps and 20 ms latency coverage, which allows for a 10 MB file to download in less than five seconds and smooth Skyping, to properties on the east side of the bay between Tomales Bay Oyster Company and Nick’s Cove and on the western side between Sacramento Landing and Drakes View Drive.
Tomales Bay LAN was born. For $49 (a cost that includes installation), it more than doubled the speed of TeleScience, eliminated the delays and sponginess of satellite (latency of 500 ms) by offering 25 times the reaction time, and ensured reliable service—even during extreme weather.
Cuyler, who had no experience in networking until this project, is the on-the-ground technician and spends about two to three hours, sometimes with calls to Hills back in Muir Beach, to mount and configure the connection device outside businesses and homes and get a line running to a modem inside.
“It’s been a really pleasant challenge,” Cuyler said. “It’s great to take my lead from someone who’s so patient with me and also with the customers. Probably the best part of it is getting someone online; it’s really rewarding. They’re just so happy. An internet connection is getting to be about important as water these days.”
Marshall resident George Clyde, an early adopter of the system, said his experience has been excellent and that its speed and Skype capabilities have helped him produce the West Marin Report for KWMR. “It’s absolutely essential to the tools of my volunteer trade,” he said. Hills does not plan on starting any more LAN systems—nor does he plan to profit from this one—but he appreciates the beauty of a community working together to establish an arguably essential service.
“When Comcast comes through, it might be a thing of the past,” he said. “But until then, it’s kind of nice that local residents can pull together and get something similar to their systems.”
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