Fifty families in the western Marin area are set to receive free satellite Internet service over the next three years as part of a new project to close the gap in internet access for students in rural communities.
The initiative, a partnership of county government, Shoreline Unified School District, Marin County Free Library and service organizations, has already installed Starlink, SpaceX’s satellite Internet service, for 25 families, with 25 more to follow. month
The Coastline Connection Project aims to help families with poor internet access or no computer skills who have been left behind by the onset of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting shift of schools to more online learning.
“Things still haven’t gone back to pre-Covid days after the kids went back to school,” said Balandra Fregoso, executive director of the Parent Services Project, a San Rafael nonprofit group that partners with the program. “Many meetings are held via Zoom. What the pandemic has done is open up this vacuum that we didn’t realize was around tech capital. We are still educating parents about the platforms that schools use.”
Many of the families served by the new program live in western Marin ranches where internet service is limited. Most of the families are also Spanish-speaking, Fregoso said.
Carolina Renteria, who lives off Highway 1 in Point Reyes, said her family’s poor Internet connection has led to conflicts among her four school-aged children during a pandemic that has mandated distance learning. All four of the children often lose connection if they try to connect to the Internet to attend class or do work. School-issued hot spots also didn’t do much to alleviate the problem, he said.
As a result, Renteria said her youngest child, who was in kindergarten at the time, would occasionally have to miss her classes so her other siblings, who were in higher grades, could attend theirs.
But after reaching out to the Shoreline Unified School District about a new connectivity project and having Starlink equipment installed in their home this year, Renteria said their connectivity issues went away.
“It’s been a big change,” said Renteria, speaking through an interpreter. “It’s not lagging and we’re no longer arguing about who gets to use the internet. It is good quality. I can be more connected because I don’t have to wait and it’s just quick.”
The project is estimated to cost about $390,000 and is being funded through the federal America’s Rescue Plan stimulus package, the Marin Community Foundation, the Pincus Family Foundation, the West Marin Foundation, the Shoreline Unified School District and the federal Emergency Communications Fund.
The project is the latest by the county to address internet connectivity issues, particularly in low-income communities, since the start of the pandemic. Other projects include free Wi-Fi networks to serve hundreds of homes in San Rafael’s Canal neighborhood and Marin City.
“The idea was to work across a lot of different communities and geographic areas in the county that have very different and very different needs,” said Javier Trujillo, chief assistant director of the Marin County Department of Information Services and Technology.
Efforts to address connectivity issues in West Marin began in 2021. Areas near and to the north of Tomales Bay may not have wireless Internet access, and the geography doesn’t make high-speed fiber expansion cost prohibitive yet, Trujillo said.
As a result, the province turned to Starlink, which uses thousands of low-orbit satellites to provide broadband internet service to otherwise hard-to-reach areas.
To determine which families will be part of the new program, the Parent Service Project worked with the Shoreline Unified School District to identify families most in need of services. The nonprofit group was already working with families in the area to teach computer skills during the pandemic and is now helping families install Starlink kits.
According to Maria Niggle of the Marin Promise Partnership, 55% of students in the Shoreline Unified School District are eligible for free and reduced lunches as of 2020-2021. Niggle said 46 students did not have an internet connection at home and 52 students had to go to learning centers set up in the area to connect to the internet.
“What we’re hearing from family advocates for schools is that parents are driving miles for their kids to have some cell service, and they’re sitting in their cars for hours trying to access their education,” Niggle said.
Working to collect data and coordinate various partners for the project, the Marin Promise Partnership is a network of more than 100 schools, nonprofit groups, businesses and government agencies focused on addressing education equity issues. Niggle said he hopes to get more funding to expand the project to more families.
Fregoso said the Parent Service Project trains parents and other community members who have received the Starlink service to become mentors for other families around digital literacy and computer education.
“It’s been two years in the making and we finally got it off the ground,” Fregoso said of the project. “It’s really exciting to see and I know we’re making a difference in the lives of families. I regret that this stock gap exists, but I think we’re doing a great job of plugging it in one device at a time.