West Marin’s Internet woes and hopes

06/25/2015

Rural areas are frequently left in the digital shadows when it comes to the range and quality of service that major Internet companies provide. For many years, that shadow has stretched over West Marin. A case in point: for months now, residents in Bolinas say AT&T has denied them new high-speed Internet service, baffling locals who have spent countless hours on the phone with service representatives and who worry that the company may one day pull out of Bolinas entirely.

“Any company gets less bang for their buck in a sparsely populated, remote community than in a metropolis,” said Don Smith, a longtime Bolinas resident. “So we’re always low in anyone’s priority for service improvements.”

But while Bolinas grapples with juggernauts like AT&T, other areas in West Marin have linked up with alternative providers—or are seeking new modes of access—that could in the future solve the connectivity conundrum. 

In Nicasio, residents and county brass, including Marin County Supervisor Steve Kinsey, have been working for over a year to figure out how to tap into the same system used by George Lucas’s Skywalker Ranch. From there, a network of powerful fiber-optic cable lines carrying high-speed Internet runs under and above ground to San Francisco and the East Bay. 

According to Eric Blantz, a resident of Nicasio for 15 years, the community and its surrounding areas has no wired options for Internet service. Likewise, much of the 4G wireless service offered by AT&T and Verizon does not reach many of the town’s houses.

“We are, by many measures, the least served area in Marin,” Mr. Blantz said. “Communities like Nicasio do not offer the market incentive [to companies like AT&T] to extend their market offerings.”

But the community also lies close to a fiber-optic cable containing 288 strands of high-capacity fiber, a source from which high-speed Internet flows. The cable runs in a loop from Skywalker Ranch to San Rafael, following along Lucas Valley Road, down Nicasio Valley Road to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard and to Highway 101. Mr. Lucas taps into only a few dozen of these strands for the property, leaving the rest untouched. 

When leased to an entity like LucasFilm, Ltd., these lines are called “dark fiber”; these strands are owned by Zayo Group, LLC, an Internet carrier similar to AT&T, but which deals with super high-capacity fiber-optic strands.

“There is a tremendous amount of unused capacity in the fiber running in Marin today,” said Peter Pratt, a consultant to the county who is spearheading the effort to secure funds for fiber-optic expansion across West Marin. “What you can do with 288 strands of fiber is
incredible.”

For Mr. Pratt, the Lucas Valley fiber-optic freeway represents what he and others familiar with broadband jargon call the “middle mile”: an existing fiber-optic line that potential users can tap in to for Internet bandwidth.

What’s missing in West Marin is the “last mile” of physical cable connection from the fiber-optic network to individual homes along the route. In West Marin’s case, that would involve building off of the existing Zayo fiber optic line from Lucas Valley and extending it up to Dillon Beach and down to Bolinas, reaching all of West Marin in between. The connections could happen in a variety of ways, Mr. Pratt said, such as by telephone line or as fixed wireless services delivered by antennae and fiber-optic circuits.

In the meantime, Mr. Pratt said, “The economics of the private market don’t work in rural West Marin, just like they don’t work across rural America.” 

AT&T in Bolinas

Residents in Bolinas hope their pleas for AT&T to improve its service will be heard. Some fear the company will simply brush Bolinas away like a speck of dust on its business map.

In May, after moving from one side of Bolinas to the other, Patrice Daley was notified by AT&T that she would no longer be able to receive high-speed Internet access. It was troubling news for Ms. Daley, who said she was told by the company as recently as March that she would be eligible for high-speed DSL service at her new home. She called customer service to figure out what was happening.

“I must have talked to 18 people all over the globe giving me different answers,” said Ms. Daley, whose work as a freelance bookkeeper depends on reliable, speedy Internet. “This went on for weeks. I was told that I was too far away from their service. I was told that they didn’t have any room.”

Ms. Daley said she spoke with reps in Orange County, Texas, India, the Caribbean and one guy who said he “was offshore” on a ship. The deadends frustrated her for weeks until, eventually, she was told the only way to access high-speed Internet in her new home would be to sign up for the company’s U-Verse broadband Internet package, which utilizes fiber-optic technology to generate faster download and upload speeds than phone-line DSL service.

However, AT&T does not offer U-Verse in Bolinas, Ms. Daley learned, leaving her with the only option of purchasing a Wi-Fi hot spot device that gave her slower Internet speeds and doubled her monthly charges. (An AT&T spokesperson told the Light that the company has no plans to build U-verse service in Bolinas.)

Ms. Daley’s experience has been repeated by at least five other people in Bolinas, she said. Longtime resident Hilary Winslow went through the same problem, and now visits the town’s firehouse to enjoy its 4G wireless speeds.

“Any new person that comes to town is going to go through it,” said Ms. Winslow. “It will happen to more and more people as time goes on.”

The Light spoke to several AT&T service representatives while trying to determine why Ms. Daley could not receive high-speed Internet access, and each said that DSL Internet is no longer available in Bolinas. Alex Carey, a spokesperson, said DSL service would continue to be provided to existing customers, but that the company could not sign up new DSL customers . In an email, he noted that the reason for discontinuing service was that the “network is at capacity.”

But even people with existing DSL service are experiencing slow Internet speeds, wrote Lyndon Comstock, a 21-year resident, in a column published last Friday in the Bolinas Hearsay News. Based on a conversation with a technician, Mr. Comstock attributed the problem to an “obsolete switch” near the firehouse that routes Internet traffic through a fiber-optic cable to individual households. “AT&T management knows about it, but they haven’t felt like spending the money to replace the switch,” he wrote. “As I understand it, they’ve got fiber optic that comes to the switch, which can handle the traffic, but the switch can’t handle it.”

A second AT&T spokesperson, Matthew Cross, could not say whether increasing Internet capacity in Bolinas would be impossible due to infrastructure constraints, or whether the company has made a commercial decision to cap DSL service out of a scarcity of demand.

Other options

Horizon Cable TV, Inc.—an Internet, television and phone provider based out of Point Reyes Station—brings Internet to many parts of West Marin. The company used to have a small presence in Bolinas while managing a cable T.V. service owned by another company based out of Arizona, but it pulled out 12 years ago.

Since then, Horizon has been looking at ways to increase its broadband service in West Marin, but said that the cost of extending into unserved areas like Bolinas and Nicasio could range in the tens of thousands to build additional lines.

“It would have to make business sense,” said Kevin Daniel, Horizon’s co-founder. “We presently do not serve Bolinas, but that’s something we would be interested in looking into. We haven’t given it a full study in Bolinas to see what type of desire or need the community has.”

It was around the same time when Horizon quit managing the Arizona company in Bolinas that AT&T brought DSL to the town. After a push from residents—and with backing from Supervisor Kinsey—AT&T routed a fiber optic cable to the town that runs from the Coast Guard facility on Mesa Road to the firehouse. Through that cable flows all of the high-speed Internet data into Bolinas from multiple service providers, including AT&T.

One of those providers is LMi.net, a Berkeley-based solar-powered Internet purveyor that offers standard DSL over existing AT&T phone lines and through the fiber optic cable in Bolinas. Mr. Smith, the Bolinas resident, uses LMi.net’s service in lieu of AT&T.

“I’m sure LMI would be glad to have more customers in Bolinas, and some pressure from them upon AT&T might help get us a new switch,” he wrote in an email to the Light.

Gary Morell, co-owner of LMi.net, said the company has “a number of happy customers in [West Marin] and would love to take on more.” But absent other options to compete with the big providers, Bolinas and other parts of rural West Marin will continue struggling to keep pace with vastly larger economic markets like San Francisco.

“It’s a remote community with very little local economic base,” said Tom Willard, a longtime Bolinas resident who moved to Belmont six years ago. “If you want to have a vibrant community, you need to have ways for people to make a living. Folks can make a living over the Internet, through the knowledge economy, but they need to have Internet access.”

For Mr. Pratt, the fiber-optic “middle mile” network in Lucas Valley could offer the opportunity for other Internet providers, besides AT&T, to spread throughout West Marin. He said it will take a collaborative private and public partnership to secure federal, state and private funding for an extension of the Zayo fiber optic line. That effort, he said, is currently underway.

Quad-county consortium

A year ago, Marin County—under guidance from Mr. Pratt and Supervisor Kinsey’s office—teamed up with Mendocino, Napa and Sonoma Counties to form the North Bay/North Coast Broadband Consortium, which can apply for grants from the California Public Utilities Commission. With part of a two-year grant for $250,000, the consortium developed a map that shows where broadband does and does not exist. 

“What we’re trying to do is take the planning to actual infrastructure improvements and try to provide backbone to West Marin to help local providers provide service to local communities,” said Liza Crosse, aide to Supervisor Kinsey. Ms. Crosse said much of the two-year grant funded Mr. Pratt’s consulting contract.

The consortium’s map identifies 30 “priority areas” within the four counties, seven of which are located in West Marin, and breaks down these areas into underserved and unserved broadband-access categories. These areas are eligible for state funding that would provide 60 to 70 percent of the cost to build broadband infrastructure, with individual communities making up the difference. If the state awards additional funds to the priority area that includes Nicasio, Mr. Blantz said, that money would be spent to hook into the Zayo fiber-optic line.

With Nicasio tapped into Zayo’s fiber, the idea is that an expanded “middle mile” system could serve as a jumping point to create other “last mile” connections throughout all of West Marin.

“That’s like the Mississippi River for the digital age,” Mr. Pratt said. “What we’re doing is building culverts off of it, and we’re trying to divert those culverts to West Marin.”

Alternative-Internet advocates in Nicasio, with guidance from Mr. Pratt, are attempting to secure funds from a private donor to match any grants awarded by the state. That way, Mr. Blantz said, the burden of recouping the remainder of the costs for infrastructure would not fall squarely on the shoulders of residents.

“We have identified another partner,” Mr. Blantz said. “I’m hoping we will conclude an agreement with them shortly.”

The county has until the end of the year to apply for state funding for West Marin’s priority areas. Federal funds may also be on the horizon for West Marin, noted Mr. Pratt, who said he has been talking with United States Representative Jared Huffman about how to secure federal funds for the fiber-optic expansion.

“In my opinion, ideally, we would see several million dollars applied for in state and federal funding,” Mr. Pratt said. “At the end of the day, what it takes to build broadband infrastructure is government funding.”