Humboldt COE launches new network, providing rural families with high-speed internet

A new high-speed digital internet system was launched Oct. 4 in Fairhaven as part of a statewide effort to reduce California’s digital divide — especially in rural areas where broadband access has long been unavailable.

The network in Fairhaven, located about 2 miles southwest of downtown Eureka on the Samoa Peninsula, is a collaboration between the Humboldt County Office of Education, California-based technology firm Dalet Access Labs and the Samoa Peninsula Fire District.

Humboldt COE officials, working closely with Dalet, chose to conduct the project in Fairhaven because many families with school children in the community were unable to participate in distance learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Samoa Peninsula Fire District’s Fairhaven fire station was chosen as the base of operations due to its proximity to all the homes in the community.

“We wanted to create a solution that could become a model for the rest of rural California and the world,” Colby Smart, Humboldt COE assistant superintendent of educational services, said in a statement. “We created what’s called a ‘low latency mesh network’ that addresses two issues in Humboldt County: The high cost of broadband internet and the availability of broadband internet.”

The project was born out of the California Department of Education’s Digital Divide Innovation Challenge, which stipulated that competitors must test their innovation with students experiencing a lack of connectivity either due to barriers of affordability or infrastructure. The solution must be at a cost of no more than $15/month per household, include 100 megabits synchronous upload and download speed with no data caps, and have fully deployable implementation within a year. The system is now deployed, and the project remains entered in the competition where the prize is $1 million.

The Fairhaven model surpassed the minimum requirements for the Innovation Challenge, Smart said. “In Humboldt County, download speeds are around 100 megabits. This project has low latency speeds of 700 to 900 megabits at around $15/month,” he added, “It’s an amazing example of what public-private partnership can do to help address and solve a real problem.”

Dalet and Humboldt COE worked with Cogent Communications and AT&T to launch a live fiber optic line to the Fairhaven firehouse structure, and sensors were established with the main access point at the fire house. Using Dalet’s technology, wireless “nodes” were deployed throughout the Fairhaven community for families with students. Through the system’s optimized sensor-networking software, the system provides high-speed internet coverage to families in Fairhaven with only brief delay times. The infrastructure for high-quality distance learning was in place as a result.

Gaps remain in broadband access statewide, but local, state and federal efforts to bridge the digital divide have made significant progress since the onset of the pandemic — especially among students — according to two fact sheets released in July by the Public Policy Institute of California.

Using data from 2020–22, researchers found that among families with K-12 students, low-income households and those headed by someone without a bachelor’s degree experienced significant gains in reliable access to both devices and internet.

The share of K-12 households with reliable access to a computer device rose from 68 percent to 82 percent from spring to fall 2020, as most local educational agencies settled into distance learning. Gains in reliable access to internet service moved at a slower pace, increasing from 71 percent to just 75 percent. “This reflects the challenges of reaching households in remote areas that do not have internet infrastructure and low-income households in crowded urban areas that cannot afford reliable internet,” researchers wrote.

CSBA has consistently advocated for universal broadband since the earliest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, supporting several bills that sought to expand broadband access through infrastructure solutions, funding and more.

“If there is one silver lining we can take from the pandemic, it is that it exposed the extent of the digital divide for our students and families that brought about this innovation,” CDE Chief Deputy Superintendent Mary Nicely said in a statement.