Chico, California Moves Launches Pilot Project with Eye On Citywide Open Access Fiber Plan

Hoping to leverage both a major new California broadband expansion initiative and American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds, Chico, California is moving forward with its plan to deliver affordable fiber broadband to historically-underserved city residents. 

The Chico city council last year began exploring using $4.8 million of the city’s $22 million in American Rescue Plan (ARP) funds to build a citywide fiber network. After spending $250,000 to research its options, the city council voted last week to move forward with the plan.

Dual Purposes

City leaders hope the network will provide more reliable connectivity for the first responders battling historic wildfires in the region. But like many communities, Chico was also spurred to action by telecom market failure, a lack of competition among regional monopolies, and the slow speeds, spotty coverage, and high prices that routinely result. 

“All of us have had experience with the existing incumbents and what we pay for versus what we get,” said Chico's Information Systems Manager Josh Marquis. “There's a lot of areas of our region that do not have access either through affordability gaps or through service gaps.”

Much like Fort Pierce, Florida, Chico will begin by running a pilot project first targeting lower income parts of the city like the Chapman Mulberry neighborhood. There, residents will be provided inexpensive access to symmetrical fiber either through the city or a partner, made cheaper still once the FCC’s Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) discounts are applied. 

Marquis says the city hopes to make the Chico EBB application process much smoother than incumbent offerings, which have been widely criticized for being intentionally cumbersome - and attempting to upsell struggling Americans to more expensive plans

“I think a different approach that is more customer focused will be a lot more successful,” Marquis said. 

Citywide Access in the Future

Once the pilot program is built out in the next few years, the city will explore additional funding options to offer active, dedicated symmetrical gigabit service to the city’s 111,000 residents for less than $100 a month. Inspired by Ammon, Idaho, Chico hopes to make the network open access, allowing subscribers to select from a roster of competing ISPs with just a few clicks. 

“As a municipality, we should not be picking a winner of a business who’s going to have a monopoly or duopoly,” Marquis said. “I think we should be providing infrastructure because municipalities do infrastructure well, and it should be open to any provider who wants to come in without a hundred-million dollar buy-in to start a business.”

The full timeline and cost of Chico’s ambition is still being fleshed out and will be informed by what they learn during the pilot deployment. But city leaders are reviewing any and all funding options moving forward.

“There's a tidal shift of funding for broadband, and I hope we are positioned to take advantage of a lot of those sources,” Marquis said.

That’s particularly true in California, which last year unveiled a $7 billion plan to expand affordable Internet access. $3.25 billion will be used to construct a statewide middle mile open access fiber network, in addition to a $750 million financing program providing municipalities, cooperatives, and nonprofits access to long term, low-interest financing. 

The combination of California’s bold approach to expanding affordability and boosting telecom competition—combined with looming funding from both Covid relief and the recently passed infrastructure bill—should help create a once in a generation opportunity to fix an Internet access monopoly logjam decades in the making. 

“Given the right place at the right time—and we think now's the right time—we could have just a monumental shift for our community,” Marquis said.