Planning for broadband, Horizon drills under lagoon

01/30/2019

A horizontal directional drill burrowed through the earth beneath the rushing tides at the mouth of the Bolinas Lagoon on Monday, directed by employees for a small West Marin cable company with big dreams of bringing broadband internet to Bolinas. 

The news of Horizon Cable’s activities, which were aided by a boring contractor, came as a surprise to the Bolinas Community Public Utility District, which has backed plans by a different company, Inyo Networks, to elevate the town’s internet service.  

Horizon Cable, a five-employee cable company that serves around 1,400 customers across West Marin, has expressed interest in expanding to Bolinas since the community clamored for faster service two-and-half years ago. 

The BCPUD conducted outreach to a host of companies at that time. But the district ultimately supported Inyo, a Southern California company that recently received state funding to build out a broadband network in Nicasio, to apply for a $1.87 million grant from the California Public Utilities Commission to deploy broadband internet infrastructure in the town. Inyo won the grant, which would cover an estimated 60 percent of the project cost, last May. 

Yet Kevin Daniel, who co-owns Horizon Cable, refused to be locked out by the competition and objected to Inyo’s grant request. When that failed, he proceeded with the daunting task of getting permits to drill under the lagoon, which is managed by numerous county, federal and local agencies.  

“This process has been kind of like eating an elephant: one bite at a time and you just hope you get through it,” Mr. Daniel, a Fairfax resident who has owned Horizon for 35 years, said from the job site this week. 

The tail end of Wharf Road was closed off to cars beginning Monday, but pedestrian access remained open. The company plans to run a fiber optic conduit and cable under the lagoon, which they hope to connect to existing infrastructure in Seadrift. The work, Mr. Daniel said, should primarily wrap up by the end of the week. 

Mr. Daniel said he has received all of the necessary permitting and approvals to conduct his project, including from the county, the California Coastal Commission, the Army Corps of Engineers, the state and federal Departments of Fish and Wildlife and the Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary. He hopes to offer service to the entire Bolinas community as early as this spring. 

Last May, the California Public Utilities Commission awarded Inyo the $1.87 million grant to deploy broadband infrastructure in Bolinas, a project described as a collaboration with Muir Beach LAN. The district voted in early 2017 to co-sponsor the project in Bolinas, and the county expressed support.

The BCPUD board had expressed doubt about Horizon’s plan to drill under the lagoon, listing 10 permitting agencies that have jurisdiction over the water body. In a letter sent last year to the utilities commission to express continued support for Inyo’s application after Mr. Daniel filed his objection, the board said it believed the time Horizon needed to obtain permits would not result in broadband for Bolinas within a “reasonable” period of time. 

Lyndon Comstock, a BCPUD board member, learned this week that Horizon had in fact moved forward with plans—a total surprise. BCPUD received notice from USA North 811, a nonprofit tasked with circulating planned excavation reports to all utilities that might have facilities around an impending excavation site. Mr. Comstock said his board did not know Horizon was actually starting to drill on Monday until a BCPUD crew member spotted the activity. 

This week, Mr. Comstock explained that it had been “a great disappointment” that Horizon had sought to block Inyo’s grant in December 2017. In a confidential objection filed with the California Public Utilities Commission, Mr. Daniel had hoped to leverage a new law, A.B. 1665, that would have protected Horizon’s efforts if it already provided services to Bolinas.

But the commission found that Horizon did not qualify as an existing facility-based provider because it does not already serve the project area or own or operate facilities in the immediate community. The commission also challenged the feasibility and timeline of Horizon’s proposal to bring broadband to the village.

Despite this rocky history, Mr. Comstock said BCPUD is not opposed to Horizon’s plans. “We have no objection to Horizon’s efforts, as long as they have their permits and there are no environmental objections from the agencies involved,” he said. For more than two years, the community’s call for better internet services has been a dull roar, Mr. Comstock noted, adding that BCPUD had long hoped for a collaboration involving each of the local providers. 

“Our position remains the same: Please bring broadband to Bolinas,” Mr. Comstock said.

Meanwhile, Inyo, which launched fiber optic broadband service for 220 homes in Nicasio last May, has fallen slightly behind schedule in its plans for Bolinas. The company originally estimated it would complete its new fiber optic network in Nicasio by the end of last summer and begin construction in Bolinas in September. It hasn’t yet started in Bolinas, where, per the grant’s terms, the project must be complete by May 2020. 

Inyo promised to bring the rate for connectivity to maximum speeds of one gigabit for $90 a month. For perspective, that’s about seven to nine times as fast as the 100 to 130 megabits of connectivity that most residents countywide get using high-speed internet from Comcast. Most Bolinas residents currently have a maximum of 5 megabits per second, provided by AT&T.

Mr. Daniel said that the maximum speed his company currently offers is 75 megabits, but said the exact speeds he plans to offer in Bolinas remain to be determined. 

Although he declined to talk about the cost of his project, last year he told the Light he had already spent about $50,000 of his own money to fund the biological assessments and archaeological studies required for conducting a project in the lagoon. He said this week that he has not won any external funding.

Inyo’s proposal is to initially connect the village with a microwave radio link—a very-high-frequency radio technology—in Berkeley through transmitter sites on Mount Tamalpais and in Muir Beach in collaboration with the local company Muir Beach LAN. Construction would primarily involve attaching fiber optic cables to existing poles, though some homes and businesses may require new underground infrastructure.

Ultimately, as demand in Bolinas grows, Inyo hopes to connect the infrastructure to the fiber optic network recently completed in Nicasio.

Mr. Comstock said the terms of the California Public Utilities Commission grant—designated for underserved communities—requires Inyo to offer service to all Bolinas residents, though those residents can decline the service in favor of a better offer. 

For Mr. Daniel, the future offers the potential for collaboration. “We’ve worked with them,” he said of Inyo Networks. “We supported the Nicasio project and I think that was a great thing—we’re good.” 

As far as the benefit for his company, Mr. Daniel said, “It really helps us to sustain these communities better to have them all interconnected. This is a cutting technology that keeps these communities at the forefront of technology, so they aren’t just being left behind.”