New law dims county’s fiber optic dreams

Silas Valentino
Last month, Marin County Supervisor Dennis Rodoni celebrated the groundbreaking of a project that will bring broadband internet to Nicasio. The fiber-optic cable will provide 250 residents with robust service, but the project will likely not lead to a buildout to other villages in West Marin that planners had envisioned, as a new state law laid out obstacles to such a network.  

A collaborative effort to bring broadband internet to Nicasio broke ground last month, but a difficult road lies ahead for other West Marin communities that hoped to benefit from a future expansion of the network. 

Private citizens raised $994,000 for the company Inyo Networks to begin the Nicasio project, which connects to fiber optic cables passing George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch. The project was seen as a first step in boosting internet service to areas throughout West Marin underserved by large providers, but the passage of legislation last month that offers first dibs on state grants to more established providers has disrupted those plans.

Governor Jerry Brown signed Assembly Bill 1665 into law last month, just as Inyo Networks was preparing a grant application to expand the Nicasio network to Bolinas. 

Bolinas made the California Public Utilities Commission’s short list as an area with “the best ‘bang for the buck’ for deploying broadband internet infrastructure to more California households,” according to a white paper released in March. Nearly 700 homes and businesses stand to gain from broadband services.

Most of West Marin—excluding Bolinas—has already been nominated to receive resources from the federal Connect America Fund. A.B. 1665, however, prohibits any entity from applying for funding from the California Advanced Services Fund, or CASF, for projects located where federal funding has already been designated. (It’s CASF that provided $1.491 million—or about 60 percent of the total cost—to the Nicasio project last year.) 

The provision is unwelcome news to Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, who has carried on his predecessor’s goal of bringing broadband to West Marin. 

“Reliable and high-speed internet may only be available with towers and wireless transmitters in rural West Marin,” Supervisor Dennis Rodoni, who lobbied against Assembly Bill 1665 as it was debated in the assembly this September, said. “And it’ll likely depend on the large carriers’ willingness to provide it.”

For Bolinas, which wasn’t designated for federal funding and could therefore still benefit from CASF support for broadband buildout, there are other obstacles. A.B. 1665 offers an annual right of first refusal to established providers for state funding. That means AT&T, which offers some services in Bolinas, will be given first dibs to build up its network before the California Public Utilities Commission, which administers the fund, would consider other applications. 

AT&T has been unresponsive to residents’ requests to provide better services in town, likely because the cost to expand its system is larger than the potential profits. 

Small providers such as Inyo, Horizon Cable and Muir Beach LAN have been filling in the gaps in coverage in West Marin left by telecommunications companies like AT&T, but these efforts rely on state capital subsidies due to the high-cost, low-return markets. 

In addition, to build out the Nicasio network to Bolinas would require what’s known as a “middle-mile network.” But A.B. 1665 prioritizes state funding for underserved “last-mile” networks, or areas where there are no internet services. Most of West Marin has access to some kind of internet service; even smaller areas such as the Chileno Valley have some levels of service due to fixed wireless or mobile broadband. 

“There’s no question that A.B. 1665 was really harmful for getting a fiber optic system in Bolinas, or anywhere else in West Marin,” said Lyndon Comstock, chair of the Bolinas Community Public Utility District’s internet committee. “My sources tell me that AT&T actually wrote the bill and since it reads like AT&T wrote it, I find that completely credible. Instead of being called the Internet for All bill, it ought to be called the ‘Forget Internet Service, Let’s Shower Money on AT&T’ bill.”