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Wyoming’s Rural Broadband Bill Rewritten by Telecom Lobbyists to Block Public Broadband

Cheyenne Mayor Marion Orr

An effort to pass legislation that would award state grants to help rural Wyoming communities get high-speed internet was dead on arrival as far as telecom industry lobbyists were concerned.

So they “fixed it” with a secret substitute bill quietly written by the state’s telecom companies.

The replacement legislation effectively turns the state grant program into a fund for the state’s dominant telecom companies — CenturyLink and Charter Communications.

Stop the Cap! has learned the replacement bill gives high priority to eliminating potential competition by blocking funding for communities to establish their own public broadband alternatives to the phone and cable company if those companies already offer service anywhere inside the community.

The bill also seeks to define the Wyoming government’s involvement in broadband as a non-adversarial partnership with the telecom industry, according to Wyoming Senate Minority Leader Chris Rothfuss (D-District 9).

Under the substitute bill, Rothfuss said the telecom industry will now have a say over how the state awards grant funds. The industry is concerned tax dollars could be given to their competitors to offer service in communities where CenturyLink and Charter already provide modest service. But nothing in the bill would keep either company from collecting state funds for themselves, to expand broadband into unserved areas.

The attempt to switch the bills during a state senate committee meeting was met with surprise and outrage by Cheyenne Mayor Marion Orr.

“I shouldn’t have been surprised to learn industry completely re-wrote proposed broadband legislation to their favor as a ‘substitute bill’ in legislative committee today,” Orr wrote on her Facebook page on Feb. 19. “The substitute bill is substantially different than the original bill. And it wasn’t posted online or anywhere for anyone except insiders to have access to. CenturyLink and Spectrum are bullies. It’s wrong, and they are hurting Cheyenne and other Wyoming communities from gaining affordable access.”

The committee working on the bill may have hoped to switch the bills without notice, but Orr was having none of that.

“As soon as I realized the committee was working a different version that none of us had access to – I spoke up,” she said. “The committee set it aside and will hear it again tomorrow night. This is NOT good governance and the committee realized it. I will stay on this. Guaranteed.”

The substitute bill appears to have subsequently passed and is still facing review by the state legislature.

Orr remains furious Wyoming’s telecom companies that have not delivered on ubiquitous, affordable broadband will now have more power than ever to determine who gets service, who pays to extend service, and what companies can provide it.

“It’s as important as turning on electricity, it’s as important as turning on a tap and having water, it’s an absolute must if we’re going to grow,” Orr said.

Loveland, Col. Advances Municipal Broadband Without Public Vote to Avoid ‘Circus of Lies’

Fort Collins residents saw their mailboxes filled with mailers last fall opposing community broadband, paid for by the state’s cable lobby.

The Loveland, Col. City Council approved Tuesday four measures that include a $2.5 million spending authorization to lay the groundwork to allow the city to develop a new public broadband network.

The city plans to move quickly, spending $300,000 to develop an in-depth business plan for the service, which the city may run itself. The money will also be spent on researching financing options and a general outreach campaign to explain the service to local residents. Another $2.2 million will cover the development of a detailed solicitation for proposals to build the fiber network an exploration of bonding options.

Some Council members were adamant they will not repeat the mistakes of other Colorado towns by taking muncipal broadband up for a public vote. Several Loveland City Council members commented on a campaign of demagoguery and distortion practiced by incumbent cable and phone companies in Fort Collins and Longmont, which financed expensive campaigns to try to block municipal broadband proposals from getting off the ground. Both industry-funded campaigns failed.

For one Council member, the extensive lobbying campaign in 2017 to smear Fort Collins’ proposal municipal network backfired.

Councilman John Fogle had previously supported requiring a public vote if Loveland decided to get into the broadband business. But then last November he witnessed Fort Collins endure a well-financed effort by the Colorado Cable Telecommunications Association and the Fort Collins Chamber of Commerce to defeat a similar broadband proposal. He changed his mind.

“It’s not an even playing field when incumbent industries will spend $900,000 at the drop of the hat to perpetuate … a monopoly,” Fogle said, noting that local governments cannot spend taxpayer dollars to fight lobbyists and defend their proposals.

Ball: We don’t need a public vote.

Councilman Rich Ball went even further, declaring unless he died or resigned, he would never support a public vote.

“We have the wonderful opportunity to collaborate or we can be the little city that I grew up in that always got beat … by Fort Collins and Longmont,” Ball said.

Many local residents supporting the Loveland public fiber network applauded the decision of local council members not to be tricked into an unfair fight with the well-financed telecom industry.

“I don’t want the Council to spend even five minutes entertaining Comcast’s circus of lies and distortions. I hope those TV ads run last fall in Fort Collins from that fake group sponsored by the Chamber of Commerce taught our state a lesson on what cable monopolies will do to protect their monopoly,” said Loveland resident Susan Collins. “They’ll do whatever it takes and you can lose if you play their game. We already had a vote when we elected our City Council. If people don’t like what they are doing, they can vote them out again.”

But Mayor Pro Tem Don Overcash expressed concern and requested the four measures be amended to require voter approval, believing the Council may be exceeding its authority.

“If citizens want to expand our powers to meet their needs, they have the right to do that,” Overcash said.

A handful of residents also worried they would be paying for a network they won’t use, choosing to stay with their local cable or phone company provider instead.

Loveland, Col.

Councilman Jeremy Jersvig complained that his fellow Council members were making “dictatorial” motions to move forward on the fiber network that, in his view, did not consider public opinion.

But Council members who support Loveland’s public fiber proposal noted:

  • In a 2015 election, 82 percent of Loveland voters said “yes” to overriding a state law banning local governments from providing telecommunication services, such as high-speed internet. Other Colorado communities have gone through similar votes.
  • The vote allowed the city to explore making high-speed internet available throughout the Loveland area, independently or in partnership, and without raising taxes. City Council will make the final decision on whether to provide this service, and what model to use if so.
  • Ultra-fast internet service, with speeds greater than 1 gigabit per second, would be delivered through a citywide fiber-optic network, which is faster than what the local cable or phone company will provide.

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.”

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