A solution to slow internet in Bolinas is near: Muir Beach LAN will expand its network of fixed wireless repeaters on the Big Mesa over the next few weeks, offering broadband speeds that far outpace the AT&T phone-line connection that is currently the only option for 75 percent of residents. The installation helps solve a problem that became a crisis when students shifted to online learning during the pandemic.
Already, Muir Beach LAN serves about 150 households in Bolinas with seven repeaters, which can provide internet to any home with a line of sight. But large pockets without service still exist on the mesa because the landscape is flat and has many trees, making it difficult to find economical spots for new repeaters. So, the Bolinas-Stinson Union School District last week committed $20,000, the cost of installing roughly 10 repeaters that will provide broadband to most or all of the 46 school families on the mesa.
The devices, about the size of a shoebox, would be strategically placed on buildings to form a chain to an existing transmitter on Cherry Lane, which connects to the internet through a dish at the Muir Beach Overlook. Broadband will come in at 50 megabits per second, far faster than AT&T’s maximum of 5 megabits per second for its standard plan.
Households without a student will be able to connect once all of the students are online. Muir Beach LAN charges $450 per household for equipment installation, then $59 a month for service, or $25 for low-income households. The school district’s goal is to find donors to subsidize these costs so that 33 families who receive free and reduced lunch will pay $5 a month, and the rest will pay $39 a month. Already, one anonymous donor has pledged $20,000. The board still must decide whether customers will pay the school district or Muir Beach LAN directly.
The internet solution was brought forth by the district’s connectivity committee, led by parents Georgia Woods and Chloe Sladden, who both witnessed the impacts of poor internet on their children. When schools first closed last March, Ms. Woods, also a board member, volunteered to get hotspots from the Marin County Free Library to students. She quickly realized that data limits and poor cell service prevented the hotspots from being a long-term solution, and she pushed her fellow trustees to think bigger.
“The school culture that we want to thrive, it really starts online, especially in a pandemic,” she said. “And when you think about how you want to engage families that are not necessarily enfolded into the daily activities and are not as well-informed about all of the things that are going on at the school, it’s important to realize that the lack of them being ingrained into the school culture can be cause of a lack of a connectivity.”
In a survey of 90 percent of the school’s 70 families, about half reported issues with distance learning—children not hearing teachers, teachers not hearing children, severe delays in audio relay, video freezes and children forced to attend with their video turned off in order to optimize audio. Seventy-five percent of students have no broadband at home, and none of the district’s Spanish-speaking families have access to broadband. These barriers to access put the town in the bottom 6 percent of American communities, according to the Federal Communications Commission.
Even before distance learning, internet connectivity was a challenge. When seventh and eighth grade teacher Gohar Yervandyan was hired from Mill Valley Middle School, she brought with her a digital curriculum meant to prepare students for high school. But when she saw how few families were able to get online and do the work, she had to throw it out entirely.
The board designated connectivity as a facilities issue, a structural defect akin to a leaky roof. The district set aside $54,000 for internet support and hired Ian Johnson, a technology specialist who has worked with the Bolinas Fire Protection District for 30 years. Javier Trujillo, the chief assistant director of information technology for Marin County, joined the connectivity committee, as did librarian Grace Godino and facilities manager Catherine Hawes.
The connectivity committee reached out to several internet service providers, and they bumped up against a hurdle that afflicts many rural areas: The customer base is too small, and the construction costs are too high.
But for Leighton Hills, the founder of Muir Beach LAN, this kind of project is his sweet spot. Muir Beach LAN and its sister company Tomales Bay LAN strive to provide internet in areas of West Marin that nobody else will. Mr. Hills started Muir Beach LAN in 2004 because his town was experiencing sluggish dialup or satellite internet but didn’t have the market for a large broadband provider to come in. Today, 140 of 145 homes in Muir Beach subscribe locally. Mr. Hills also helped install the Tomales Bay LAN network in 2011 that serves homes along Tomales Bay, in Dillon Beach and out to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, outside of Comcast and Horizon Cable’s service areas.
Fixed wireless broadband is considered a bridge to a long-term goal of installing a fiber connection, which comes with speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second—20 times faster than fixed wireless. Horizon Cable, a West Marin company, will connect its fiber optic cable to homes on the mesa this summer, owner Kevin Daniel said. He tunneled the cable from Stinson Beach under the Bolinas Lagoon last year to serve downtown and the Little Mesa. Service costs $120 a month in Bolinas and there is no low-income plan.
Inyo Networks, a California company, received a $1.87 million grant in 2018 to deploy fiber to Bolinas, connecting it to a cable in Nicasio. But the project has been stalled while the company seeks full funding for the $3 million project. Last week, Mr. Hills said Muir Beach LAN would be willing to provide the rest of the money. He is hoping to negotiate a joint venture agreement in which he would provide customer service while Inyo provides its grant and technical know-how.