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Fidelity Communications Caught Running Astroturf Website to Kill Broadband Competition

Sock Puppet “consumer group” opposing municipal broadband in Missouri is outed by their own website.

Fidelity Communications, a small Missouri-based independent cable operator providing service in Missouri, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas, has been outed as the creator and backer of a ‘grassroots’ group trying to prevent West Plains, Mo., from launching a public broadband network that would directly compete with Fidelity.

West Plains, a community of 12,000 in south-central Missouri, runs a public fiber network originally envisioned connecting city buildings, a local medical center, fire, police, and highway offices together. Local cable company Fidelity Communications had shown no interest in providing fiber connectivity in West Plains, so city officials explored the idea of building a city owned and operated fiber network itself. As word spread around town that fiber broadband was under consideration, locals began lobbying city officials to open the network up for private commercial and residential users as well.

By January 2016, supported by a dozen major employers willing to participate as network “anchors,” the city of West Plains got into the internet provider business.

West Plains has been challenged by a lack of digital infrastructure and has seen at least 500 jobs disappear over the past few years. Inadequate service from cable company Fidelity Communications, which suffered from frequent speed slowdowns and service interruptions, drove demands for an alternative.

Local officials have been extremely cautious about entering the broadband business, and have been reluctant to grow their network too quickly. The goal of the network these days is to provide robust and reliable high-speed internet access essential for the local digital economy and the jobs it creates. But city administrator Tim Stehn is also concerned about being a careful steward of the community’s finances.

“Of course, as a city administrator, I’m concerned, because if we would go completely to all businesses and residents, we’re looking at a high price tag that is estimated at $15 million,” Stehn told Christopher Mitchell in a 2017 interview for Community Broadband Bits. “What scares me the most is the customer service aspect of this. If we’re going to do this, I want to make sure the city is successful and that we can respond at serving the customer service. That’s the piece that really scares me the most.”

West Plains’ fiber network has grown carefully over the last few years, both in terms of its reach and its capabilities. At the outset, the network offered 25/25 Mbps dedicated connections primarily to business customers. But where West Plains’ fiber loop passes residential homes, the city has also been willing to provide service to local homeowners as well.

Last September, the city announced a three-month trial of the city’s 1 Gbps Gigabit Passive Optical Network (GPON). Up to 80 businesses and 14 homes in the Southern Hills district were invited to participate. West Plains’ GPON network offers participants a shared 1 Gbps connection. City officials were confident that even though the network is shared, there will be plenty of capacity available — much more than what DSL and cable broadband networks offer. The results of the pilot are designed to ascertain how much peak usage traffic the network will face and help local officials decide on what kinds of speed tiers to offer going forward.

The community’s progress since 2016 has not gone unnoticed. As Stop the Cap! has documented before, one of the best ways to force a stubborn incumbent phone or cable company to upgrade their network is to threaten to compete with it. Last September, Fidelity Communications suddenly announced it, too, was now offering gigabit internet service — at least for download speeds — within West Plains.

The residential service features 1 Gbps download speeds with 10 Mbps uploads, with a flat price of $79 per month, fees and Wi-Fi included, taxes may still apply. The higher speeds support multiple video streams, high-end online gaming, unlimited wireless devices and rapid transfer of huge data files, along with the capability to handle other bandwidth-hungry applications.

Over the past several months, Fidelity completed network upgrades, acquired 1 Gig-capable customer modems and freed up the bandwidth necessary to support the new 1 Gig speeds. These improvements will bring convenience and ease to those using the Internet in West Plains.

“As time goes on, technological demands keep increasing,” said Don Knight, Missouri general manager for Fidelity. “Fidelity intends to meet that demand by providing broadband speeds not normally available in rural areas.”

West Plains receiving gigabit service from two gigabit providers should be welcome news for local residents and businesses. But it apparently was not good news for Fidelity, which does not appreciate the competition.

Stop City Funded Internet has references to “Fidelity” — the area’s local cable company in certain file paths to images and other documents on its website.

StopCityFundedInternet.com was registered on Dec. 13, 2017 (and last updated Jan. 23, 2018, concealing the identity of the entity that registered the domain name behind an anonymous proxy service provided by Namecheap, a well-known domain name registrar.)

When the website went live, it claimed to be a “collection of fiscally conservative Missourians who believe that the role of government is to provide essential services that enhances the lives, safety and prosperity of local communities as opposed to leveraging taxpayer funds on high-risk endeavors that compete with services already provided by the private sector.”

This “independent” website coincidentally promotes the products and services of Fidelity Communications.

The website appeared to borrow heavily from a similar (failed) campaign to stop municipal broadband in Fort Collins, Col. The most common message of anti-municipal broadband campaigns is ‘taxpayer dollars will be wasted on failing broadband networks that take away from investments in schools, local infrastructure spending, and reducing crime.’ The Stop City Funded Internet campaign hit on all three of these messages, along with what it claims are examples of “failed” public broadband projects. The group’s website links to several “news articles” about municipal broadband that are actually opinion pieces typically written by industry-funded groups and individuals.

“West Plains is already a “Gig City,” with other private internet providers,” the website claims, without referring to Fidelity Communications directly. “In fact, residents already have access to a Gig connection for $80 per month. $80 per month is a price that is in line with many other cities around the country. The City of West Plains should focus its limited taxpayer funding on more pressing priorities, like fixing our roads and bridges, improving public safety and supporting our schools. And spending taxpayer dollars subsidizing a broadband utility would mean fewer resources for other services residents need and enjoy.”

The group invites those who oppose public broadband to register for e-mail updates, which will likely involve a $15 million bond and public referendum that would be needed to build out the city’s fiber to the home network to the entire community.

Isaac Protiva of West Plains found something unusual about the sudden appearance of the group and its website, which had no presence in the community before. For one, the group seemed to have an ample budget to spend on targeted Facebook ads for local residents. The ads promote the group’s website and Facebook page. That isn’t the case for Protiva’s own website: Internet Choice West Plains, which promotes the public broadband effort out of his own pocket.

Protiva also discovered certain elements on the group’s web page directly referenced “Fidelity:”

  • Header image: The main image from the homepage has a file name of “Fidelity_SCFI_Website_V2”
  • Privacy Policy: An image from the Privacy Policy page was hosted, or stored, on a website named “Fidelity.dmwebtest.com”

The website’s attempt to painstakingly avoid any connection to Fidelity Communications makes it a classic industry-sponsored astroturf operation. A private company secretly finances an “independent consumer group” that falls in line with the company’s public policy agenda. Many companies even brazenly reference such groups as evidence that their business views are in line with those of the public. In this case, the website developer accidentally outed the operation.

After Protiva began to publicize his efforts to document Fidelity’s funny business, the company initially responded by trying to hide the evidence. The website owners disabled the Internet Achive’s ability to snapshot the website’s history to scrub evidence of the accidental ties to Fidelity, Protiva claims. He also claims the group is heavily censoring its Facebook page.

Presented with strong evidence of the connection between Stop City Funded Internet and Fidelity Communications, the company finally came clean in a Facebook post:

Trump Administration Official Proposes Nationalizing 5G Over Security Concerns

National security officials inside the Trump Administration dropped a controversial proposal on the desks of multiple federal agencies that advocates a federal government takeover of the nation’s forthcoming 5G wireless network.

Axios obtained a copy of an accompanying memo and PowerPoint presentation outlining the proposal that would nationalize 5G service and have taxpayers fund the construction of a single,  nationwide network that would allow federal officials to secure traffic from foreign economic and cybersecurity threats.

Some national security officials worry the Chinese have achieved dominant market positions in network infrastructure and artificial intelligence, and this could have security implications for emerging technologies like self-driving cars and machine to machine communications, which will likely use 5G networks.

“China is the dominant malicious actor in the Information Domain,” the presentation notes, adding that two Chinese manufacturers – ZTE and Huawei are dominant players in 5G infrastructure at a time when American manufacturers of wireless technology are disappearing.

That 5G technology and who makes it is becoming a national security issue, claims the author, advocating reduced risk by authorizing the United States government to build a single, nationwide 5G wireless network, on which America’s wireless carriers could lease secure access. The network concept could even eventually be shared with America’s allies to protect them from “Chinese neo-colonial behavior,” the author writes.

The author of the presentation, perhaps unintentionally, waded into the heart of a fierce debate between municipalities, broadband advocates and private cable and phone companies and their funded special interest groups, over the benefits of public vs. private broadband service.

Calling the taxpayer-funded effort “the 21st century equivalent of the Eisenhower National Highway System,” the author advocated first spending up to $200 billion to construct a national fiber optic backbone that would reach neighborhood 5G small cells. Additional funding would cover small cell placement and equipment.

The author implied the Department of Defense budget could be tapped for some of the money, quoting the Secretary’s interest in expanding secure communications. The author noted little of the military’s current $700 billion budget does any good for the American people in the information domain. Constructing a secured 5G broadband network would presumably change that.

The proposal suggests a national 5G network could be up and running within three years, if it became a government priority. ISPs and other users would then be able to obtain access on the network to service their respective customers.

If adopted, the Trump Administration would oversee the country’s largest public broadband project in American history, paid for by U.S. taxpayers, a concept that has traditionally been anathema to most Republicans and the broadband industry. Both have traditionally opposed public broadband projects if or when they compete with the private sector.

“This is coming from a Trump’s National Security Council,” tweeted Hal Singer, a principal at Economists, Inc. “If the same thoughts came from Bernie Sander’s NSC (or Elizabeth Warren’s), Republicans would be up in arms and Fox News would sound the socialism alarm.”

Commissioners at the Federal Communications Commission also roundly criticized the proposal.

“I oppose any proposal for the federal government to build and operate a nationwide 5G network,” wrote FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. “The market, not the government, is best positioned to drive innovation and investment.”

Pai wants the government to accelerate the allocation of additional wireless spectrum that could be auctioned off to wireless carriers to expand 5G.

The large wireless carriers remained silent about the implications of the proposal, claiming they had not yet seen it.

But by late morning, the Trump Administration was attempting to downplay the presentation, telling Recode the document was dated and had merely been floated by a staff member and was not a reflection of an imminent major policy announcement.

That did not stop four of the five commissioners at the FCC from hurrying out statements criticizing the proposal, and the fifth tweeting negatively about it. They apparently took it very seriously:

Erie County Executive Blasts Bad Internet Access for Harming Western N.Y. Economy

Western New York

In a recent survey of 2,000 residents living in Erie County (Buffalo), N.Y., it was clear almost nobody trusts their internet service provider, and 71% were dissatisfied with their internet service.

Seventeen years after many western New York residents heard the word “broadband” for the first time at a 2000 CNN town hall at the University of Buffalo, where then U.S. Senate candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton called for increased federal funding for high-speed internet, many upstate residents are still waiting for faster access.

The Buffalo News featured two stories about the current state of the internet in western New York and found it lacking.

Erie County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz blames internet service providers for serving up mediocre broadband, and no service at all in some parts of the county he represents.

“It’s been put in the hands of the private sector, and the private sector has, for whatever reason, elected to not expand into particular areas or not increase speeds in particular areas, putting those areas behind the eight ball,” he said.

Poloncarz effectively fingers the three dominant internet providers serving upstate New York – phone companies Verizon and Frontier and cable company Charter/Spectrum. He argues that companies will not even consider locating operations in areas lacking the most modern high-speed broadband. The digital economy is essential to help the recovery of western New York cities affected by the loss of manufacturing jobs and the ongoing departure of residents to other states.

Poloncarz

An important part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s statewide broadband improvement initiative is prodding Charter Communications and its predecessor Time Warner Cable to do a better job offering faster internet speeds and more rural broadband expansion. The New York Public Service Commission, as part of its approval of Charter’s acquisition of Time Warner Cable, extracted more concessions from the cable giant than any other state. Among them is a commitment to expand the cable company’s footprint into adjacent unserved areas by 2020 to reach at least 145,000 homes and businesses now outside of Charter’s service area.

Last week, the cable company told the PSC it was ahead of schedule on its expansion commitment, now reaching 42,889 additional households and businesses, which is above its goal of 36,771. It has two years left to add at least another 102,111 buildings.

Charter also recently increased broadband speeds to 100 Mbps for 99% of its customers in New York and has committed to boosting those speeds to 300 Mbps by the end of next year.

But where Charter does not provide service, broadband problems come courtesy of western New York’s biggest phone companies – Verizon and Frontier. In Erie County, a broadband census found a lack of service in parts of South Buffalo, the far West Side and East Side of Buffalo, as well as in parts of every town in the county except in the prosperous communities of West Seneca and Orchard Park. Verizon FiOS can be found in a handful of well-to-do Buffalo suburban towns, but not in the city itself or in rural parts of the region.

Verizon spokesman Chris McCann said the company had no further plans to expand FiOS service in upstate New York, and stopped announcing additional expansions in 2010. In the rest of its service area, Verizon supplies DSL service as an afterthought, and has made no significant investments to improve or expand service. Frontier Communications, which is the dominant phone company in the greater Rochester region, also provides service in some other rural western New York communities, but its DSL service rarely meets the FCC’s minimum speed definition to qualify as  broadband.

Rep. Collins

Both phone companies have no plans for significant fiber optic upgrades that would boost internet speeds. There is little pressure on either company to begin costly upgrades. In rural communities, both companies lack cable competition and in more urban areas, both have written off their ongoing customer losses to their cable competitor. That leaves towns like North Collins in a real dilemma. Poloncarz told the newspaper residents frequently park in the town library parking lot at night to connect to the library’s Wi-Fi service, because they lack internet service at home.

A political divide has opened up between area Democrats and Republican officials on how to solve the rural broadband problem. Democrats like Poloncarz are exploring solving the rural internet problem with a county-owned fiber network that would be open to all private ISPs to assist them in expanding service. He is joined by Erie County legislator Patrick Burke, who thinks it is time to spend the estimated $16.3 million it will take to build an “open access network” across Erie County.

“There are literally geographic dead zones, and it’s unnecessary,” said Burke, a Buffalo Democrat. “There’s no excuse.”

Poloncarz is more cautious and told the newspaper he will only propose the idea if he is convinced it will solve the problem, but is willing to continue studying it.

Republicans from the western New York congressional delegation believe deregulation and other incentives may give private companies enough reasons to begin upgrades and expansion.

Rep. Chris Collins, a Clarence-area congressman with close ties to the Trump White House, defended FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s recent decision to eliminate net neutrality. Pai was born in Buffalo.

Collins argues net neutrality only raised the cost of business for ISPs, and being rid of it would inspire cable and phone companies to boost investment in 105 exurban and rural towns in his district, which covers eight counties and extends from the Buffalo suburbs east to Canandaigua, 80 miles away. More than 65% of those areas are under-served because DSL is often the only choice, and at least 3.3% had no internet options at all.

Rep. Tom Reed (R-Corning) has just as many internet dead zones in his district, if not more. Reed represents the Southern Tier region of western New York in a district that runs along the Pennsylvania border from the westernmost part of New York east nearly to Binghamton. Much of recent broadband development in this part of New York comes as a result of Gov. Cuomo’s state-funded broadband expansion initiative, not private investment.

Reed has a record in Congress that is better at explaining the rural broadband dilemma than solving it.

“In a rural district, there are areas that are just physically difficult to serve,” Reed shrugged.

Collins’ hope that the banishment of net neutrality will inspire Frontier, Verizon, and Charter to use their own money to expand into the frontiers of western New York seems unlikely. Gov. Cuomo’s plan, which uses public funds to help subsidize mostly private companies to expand into areas where Return On Investment fails to meet their metrics has had more success.

But the rural broadband debate has been accompanied by a fierce pushback among upstate New Yorkers against the Republican-controlled FCC and elected officials like Collins who support the recent gutting of net neutrality. A backlash has developed in his district, and some have accused Collins of aiding and abetting a corporate takeover of the internet.

“The hysteria and narrative that this will kill the internet is blatantly false,” responded Collins. “Internet service providers have said they do not increase speeds for certain websites over others, and I have signed onto legislation that would make such a practice illegal.”

Defenders of FCC’s Ajit Pai Miss the Point on Cutting Broadband Speed Standards

Defenders of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai are rushing to defend the Republican majority’s likely support for an initiative to roll back the FCC’s 25/3Mbps speed standard embraced by his predecessor, Thomas Wheeler.

Johnny Kampis, writing for Watchdog.org, claims that broadband speed standard has had an adverse affect on solving America’s rural broadband gap.

After raising that standard, suddenly those areas with speeds below 10 mbps were lumped into the same group with those who could access speeds of 10-25 mbps, resulting in diminished focus on those areas where the broadband gap cut the deepest.

Raising the standard meant, too, that fans of big government could point to the suddenly higher percentage of the population that was “underserved” on internet speeds and call for more taxpayer money to solve that “problem.”

Kampis is relying on the talking points from the broadband industry, which also happens to support the same ideological interests of Watchdog.org’s benefactor, the corporate/foundation-funded Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. The argument suggests that if you raise broadband standards, that opens the door to more communities to claim they too are presently underserved, which then would qualify them for government-funded broadband improvements.

Kampis’ piece, like many of those published on Watchdog.org, distorts reality with suggestions that communities with 50Mbps broadband service will now be ripe for government handouts. He depends on an unnamed source from an article written on Townhall.com and also quotes the CEO of Freedom Foundation of Minnesota, which is closely associated with the same Franklin Center that hosts Watchdog.org. Kampis’ piece relies on sourcing that is directly tied to the organization hosting his article.

In reality, rural broadband funding has several mechanisms in place which heavily favor unserved, rural areas, not communities that already have 50Mbps internet access. ISPs also routinely object to projects proposed within their existing service areas, declaring them already served, and much of the funding doled out by the Connect America Fund (CAF) Kampis suggests is a government handout are being given to telephone companies, not municipalities.

Kampis

Kampis is satisfied free market capitalism will eventually solve the rural broadband problem, despite two decades of lackluster or non-existent service in areas deemed unprofitable to serve.

“So while Pai’s critics denigrate him because his FCC is considering lowering that broadband standard, he’s just correcting an earlier mistake, with the realization that the free market, not big government, will solve the rural broadband gap if given enough time,” Kampis writes. “And returning to the old standards will help ensure that the focus will be placed squarely on the areas that need the most help.”

Kampis suggests that free market solution might be 5G wireless broadband, which can potentially serve rural populations less expensively than traditional wired broadband service. Communities only need wait another 5-10 years for that to materialize, if it does at all.

Kampis claims to be an investigative reporter, but he didn’t venture too far beyond regurgitating press releases and talking points from big phone companies and opponents of municipal broadband. If he had spent time reviewing correspondence sent to the FCC in response to the question of easing broadband speed standards, he would have discovered the biggest advocates for that are large phone companies and wireless carriers that stand to benefit the most from the change.

Following the money usually delivers a clearer, more fact-based explanation for what motivates players in the broadband industry. In this case, the 25Mbps speed standard has regularly been attacked by phone and wireless companies hoping to tap into government funds to build out their networks. Traditional phone companies are upset that the 25Mbps requirement means their typical rural broadband solution – DSL, usually won’t cut it. Wireless companies have also had a hard time assuring the FCC of consistent 25Mbps speeds, making it difficult for them to qualify for grants. AT&T wasn’t happy with a 10Mbps standard for wireless service either.

Incidentally, these are the same companies that have failed to solve the rural broadband gap all along. Most will continue not serving rural areas unless the government covers part of their costs. AT&T illustrates that with its own fixed wireless rural broadband solution, which came about grudgingly with the availability of CAF funding.

The dark money ATM network hides corporate contributions funneled into advocacy groups.

The free market broadband solution is rooted in meeting Return On Investment metrics. In short, if a home costs more to serve that a company can recoup in a short amount of time, that home will not be served unless either the homeowner or someone else covers the costs of providing the service. By wiping out the Obama Administration’s FCC speed standard, more ratepayer dollars will be directed to phone and wireless companies that will build less expensive and less-capable DSL and wireless networks instead of investing in more modern technology like fiber optics.

Mr. Kampis, and others, through their advocacy, claim their motive is a reduction in government waste. But in reality, and not by coincidence, their brand of journalism hoodwinks readers into advocating against their best interests of getting fast, future-proofed broadband, and instead hand more money to companies like AT&T. The Franklin Center refuses to reveal its donor list, of course, but SourceWatch reported the Center is heavily dependent on funding from DonorsTrust, which cloaks the identity of its corporate donors. Mother Jones went further and called it “a dark money ATM.”

Companies like AT&T didn’t end up this lucky by accident. It donates to dark money groups that fund various sock puppet and astroturf operations that avoid revealing where the money comes from, while the groups get to claim they are advocating for taxpayers. By no coincidence, these groups frequently don’t attack corporate welfare, especially if the recipient is also a donor.

New York’s rural broadband initiative is on track to deliver near 100% broadband coverage to all New York homes and has speed requirements and a ban on hard data caps.

Raising speed standards does not harm rural broadband expansion. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s broadband expansion campaign is on track to reach the remaining 150,000 homes still without broadband access by sometime next year. His program relies on broadband expansion funding that comes with requirements that insist providers offer internet access capable of at least 25Mbps (with a preference for 100Mbps) for $60 or less and a ban on hard usage caps. Kampis claims the 25Mbps speed standard hampers progress, yet New York is the first state in the nation moving towards 100% broadband availability for its residents at that speed or better.

Chairman Pai’s solution is little more than a gift to the country’s largest phone and wireless companies that would like to capture more CAF money for themselves while delivering the least amount of service possible (and keep money out of the hands of municipalities that want to build their own more capable networks). The evidence is quite clear — relying on the same companies that have allowed the rural broadband crisis to continue for more than 20 years is a stupendously bad idea that only sounds brilliant after some corporation writes a large check.

Michigan’s Michele Hoitenga Kills Her Own Broadband Ban Bill; Chamber of Commerce Objected

Hoitenga

In what must be a new speed record, Michigan’s Republican state Representative Michele Hoitenga introduced and then effectively pulled support for her bill that would have banned community broadband initiatives across the state.

Introduced Oct. 12, the bill succinctly banned any use of public funds to construct a municipal internet alternative to the phone and cable companies. The bill came under immediate criticism for its content and accuracy, erroneously transposing speeds of a “qualified internet service” as one offering at least 10Mbps upload speed and 1Mbps download speed.

Hoitenga claimed the sudden interest from telecommunications companies that began donating to her campaign in this election cycle ($2,500 from Telecommunications Association of Michigan, $1,500 from AT&T Michigan, $500 from Comcast Corporation & NBC Universal, $500 from Michigan Cable Telecommunications) had nothing to do with her bill and would not have impacted her vote.

“I’ve got to be a voice of the people,” she told Cadillac News, adding she introduced the bill because she wanted to start a conversation. But after her constituents and the media (including Stop the Cap!) started asking questions, Hoitenga banned and blocked several reporters from her Twitter channel and wrote on her Facebook page that she had received death threats and profane phone calls about her bill.

Hoitenga also faced criticism from consumer groups and public policy organizations for attempting to eliminate a rural broadband solution for large rural areas of the state with inadequate service.

As quickly as the bill was introduced, its author declared it effectively dead because members of her area’s Chamber of Commerce objected to the bill’s wording.

“I really respect the chamber,” she told the newspaper, explaining that she will now not hold hearings on the bill, which will effectively kill it.

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