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Poor internet connectivity threatens rural business in California’s North Coast

Imagine billionaire Elon Musk choosing remote Mendocino County as the latest place to launch his newest venture.

It’s actually not a far-fetched scenario.

In fact, Musk’s SpaceX company is about to introduce Starlink, a high-speed broadband internet service that bills itself as being able to “deliver high-speed broadband internet to locations where access has been unreliable or completely unavailable.” According to its website, Starlink satellites are over 60 times closer to Earth than traditional satellites, resulting in the ability to support services typically not possible with traditional satellite internet.

It could be just what the doctor ordered.

“I’m pretty excited about it,” said Cheryl Rydmark, a metalsmith in business for 37 years who lives on the Mendocino Coast in Caspar, which sits between Mendocino and Fort Bragg, without any cell towers of its own, she said. Some business experts estimate about a quarter of the county doesn’t have the internet connectivity to perform basic tasks.

“It’s a hard place to be able to connect to anything,” Rydmark said. “It’s really kind of precarious.”

Rydmark built her client base throughout the years as she traveled the country showing her jewelry at galleries and craft shows, including annual showings at the Smithsonian and Philadelphia Museum.

She has had a web presence for many years, but when she entered the world of e-commerce in 2019, that’s when her longstanding internet-service connectivity issues began to threaten her business.

Over the years, in her attempts to overcome poor connectivity, Rydmark has gone through three internet service providers, starting with HughesNet. She then moved to Rural Internet 4G, which runs off an AT&T cell tower. It wound up being even more troublesome, she said. Rydmark currently is with UScellular, which has proven to have the best reliability so far, “but there are times during the day where I have zero download speed.”

Displaying her jewelry on the internet is critical to Rydmark’s e-commerce success.

“During the time I was building my (online store), I would get up at 4 in the morning to load images onto the website, when I actually had decent bandwidth,” Rydmark said, adding if she waited until later in the day, she would be gridlocked by internet congestion.

Several months ago, in her ongoing quest to solve her poor connectivity woes, Rydmark came across Starlink. She joined the mailing list and last week received an email notifying her she could participate in the beta testing of its new satellite internet service. She’s expecting the kit to arrive in the next few weeks.

“I have read about the beta testing they’ve done in Canada and the speeds are really exciting, like 50 megabytes per second,” Rydmark said. “I mean, who needs that, really? But if I can get just enough for a video to show up, not buffer, not smear and have the kind of clarity that I need, I think that's going to be a real game changer for me.”

Sheila Jenkins, owner of Pure & Simple Pottery Products in the Mendocino County community of Willits, said she’s skeptical about Musk’s latest enterprise.

“It sounds too good to be true, but I sure like the concept of getting better service,” Jenkins said, adding her location in Willits isn’t terrible for service, but also not great. “It’s kind of in that gray area, where at certain times of the day I get fast enough loading speeds that I can work.”

Jenkins’ internet service provider is ViaSat. She tries to keep her monthly data allotment as low as possible to keep expenses down.

“Unfortunately, I'm using up my data so quickly, for a variety of reasons, and it’s not adequate,” Jenkins said, noting she currently pays $50 a month. “I really need a better plan so I might have to spend twice that.”

Jenkins runs a retail and wholesale tool business for potters that she started in 1980. She has advertised her niche company in a national magazine that garnered both national and international customers.

About 20 years ago, she transitioned away from print advertising to launching her own website.

“That was huge leg up, especially in a limited market like we have here with the small towns,” Jenkins said. “It’s really nice to have a more thorough scope of the national audience with a website. It has saturated the marketplace better than the print ads ever did, and it opened me up to international business, too.”

Jenkins uses the Shopify platform for her e-commerce business, which requires a lot of data and takes a lot of time. When the internet service is slow, Jenkins said she can’t even print a label when she needs it.

“Remote areas are tough,” she said, adding that phone service also is a struggle. “We definitely could use some improvement in the infrastructure, as well.”

Mary Anne Petrillo, CEO of West Business Development Center, which provides various training and workshops for the region’s small businesses, said the center currently is exploring new offerings for running an online business.

“We're going to be doing more intensive training around e-commerce because we do believe that is the growing opportunity for businesses in our county, and it's sustainable,” she said, noting new technology coming out, like Starlink. “And we have to continue to go after broadband and cell towers and connectivity issues. We have to go after all the different opportunities there are.”

West hosts two SBA organizations — a small business development denter (SBDC) and a women's business center — so it qualifies for federal funding.

Petrillo also noted that about 24% of Mendocino County doesn’t have the connectivity it needs to do basic services.

“This is one of the challenges, not just for Mendocino, but I think for all rural regions,” she said. “There isn't enough accurate data that tells you who has service and who doesn't.”

However, she added, there is now new software available, and Mendocino and Sonoma counties are working together to help figure that out.

Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. She previously worked for a Gannett daily newspaper in New Jersey and NJBIZ, the state’s business journal. Cheryl has freelanced for business journals in Sacramento, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania. She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from California State University, Northridge. Reach her at cheryl.sarfaty@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4259.

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