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N.Y. Gives Charter 2 Weeks to Come to Terms or Face Revocation of Charter-TWC Merger

The New York Public Service Commission has notified Charter Communications it won’t be the victim of an offer that promises one thing and delivers something less, giving the company 14 days to fully accept the terms of its Time Warner Cable/Charter merger approval or face the possibility of having the merger canceled, potentially throwing Charter’s business plans into chaos.

In a move any aggrieved cable customer would appreciate, Charter’s lawyers gave the PSC a deal that looked good on the surface, only to be eroded away in the fine print. In a May 2018 response to the Commission’s “show cause” order, threatening to severely fine the cable company for breaking its commitments to New York State, the cable company effectively responded it wasn’t their fault if the Commission missed the fact the company did not actually agree to everything the state thought it did, and was in full compliance of what it unilaterally agreed to do.

The hubris of the state’s largest cable operator did not go down well in Albany, to say the least. But first some background:

Charter is coming under fire in New York State for failing to meet its obligations to extend service in a timely way to 145,000 New York homes and businesses not part of Spectrum’s service area and also lack access to broadband service. Today the Commission, in a separate action, fined Charter $2 million, to be drawn from a line of credit previously set aside by the cable company, for failing to meet its original broadband buildout targets and failing to remedy its past poor performance.

Charter’s lawyers last month protested their innocence, claiming the company was not out of compliance with its agreement — in fact it was ahead of schedule.

Both things cannot be true, so who is being honest and who is trading in “alternative facts?”

To find out, one has to turn back the clock to 2016. On January 19, Charter’s attorneys sent an acceptance letter to the Commission in response to the regulator’s offer to approve the acquisition of Time Warner Cable if Charter agreed to a series of pro-consumer benefits designed to allow New York customers to share in the lucrative deal.

Charter agreed to dramatically increase Standard internet speeds for its New York customers, first to 100 Mbps by the end of 2018 and again to 300 Mbps by the end of 2019. Charter met its first commitment ahead of schedule and is on track to again increase speeds for New York residents before the end of next year.

The company also agreed to temporarily retain Time Warner Cable’s $14.99 Everyday Low Price Internet program. Although that option has since expired for new customers, existing customers can keep the package until at least next year. But regulators note Charter has frequently made it difficult for New York customers to sign up for the program. Stop the Cap! has documented multiple instances of customers being told the plan was unavailable, or representatives have confused it with Spectrum Internet Assist, a similar budget-priced internet package for those that meet certain income and benefits qualifications.

But Charter’s agreement to expand its service to unserved areas of New York is where most of the current conflict arises. Stop the Cap! strongly recommended in our testimony to the PSC that rural broadband expansion be a part of a series of deal commitments that should be imposed on Charter if the Commission saw fit to approve the merger. The Commission agreed with our recommendation. That allows us to speak authoritatively that the Commission, in concert with the New York State government, framed that expansion commitment as an adjunct to the state’s Broadband 4 All program, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s rural broadband expansion effort.

Charter would serve an integral role in the effort by extending service to homes and businesses just outside of its current service area. That would save the state millions in costs trying to subsidize other providers to expand into these typically unprofitable areas of the state. The design and intention of the expansion program was clear from the outset, and the Commission specifically requested Charter provide detailed lists of planned expansion areas, so the state could avoid duplicating its efforts and re-target funding to other areas of the state. The goal was to achieve near-universal broadband availability in every corner of New York.

The Commission’s 2016 letter to Charter seemed clear enough:

The conditions adopted in this Order and listed in Appendix A shall be binding and enforceable by the Commission upon unconditional acceptance by New Charter within seven (7) business days of the issuance of this Order. If the Petitioners’ unconditional acceptance is not received within seven (7) business days of the issuance of this Order, the Petitioners will have failed to satisfy their burden under the Public Service Law as described herein, and this Order shall constitute a denial of the Joint Petition.

But in Charter’s response on January 19, 2016, their lawyers got too cute by half (emphasis ours):

In accordance with the Commission’s Order Granting Joint Petition by Time Warner Cable Inc. (“Time Warner Cable”) and Charter Communications, Inc. (“Charter”) dated January 8, 2016, Charter hereby accepts the Order Conditions for Approval contained in Appendix A, subject to applicable law and without waiver of any legal rights.

On May 9, 2018 the state discovered what that language discrepancy meant. Charter’s lawyers responded to the state’s charges that the company was not complying with the terms of the merger approval agreement with a classic “gotcha” letter, claiming Charter’s agreement provided only a “qualified” acceptance of language contained exclusively in Appendix A, and its obligations started and stopped there.

That is a distinction worth millions of dollars. Appendix A basically summarizes Charter’s commitment to expand to 145,000 new passings in New York, but does not explain the expansion program or its purpose. If only Appendix A did apply, it would allow Charter to count any new cable hookup, whether in a rural hamlet or more likely in a condo in Manhattan as a “new passing,” bringing it one customer closer to meeting its expansion commitment. Charter could count new wealthy gated communities, apartment buildings, offices, and converted lofts, despite the fact it would almost certainly wire those customers for service with or without its agreement with the state government. More importantly, Charter would successfully avoid spending tens of thousands of dollars to extend the cable line down a road just to reach one or two rural customers.

Charter’s lawyers seem to think that their clever loophole will win the company significant savings and avoid fines — too bad, so sad if the state’s lawyers failed to appreciate what Charter was actually willing to agree to in 2016 and what the state accepted by default by not catching the discrepancy sooner.

“Contrary to [Charter’s] assertions, however, the Approval Order accorded Charter only two explicit choices: (1) to accept unconditionally the commitments set forth in the body of the Approval Order and Appendix A; or (2) have the Joint Petition rejected, subject to Charter’s right to judicial review,” the Commission rebutted.

In short, the state is calling Charter’s possible bluff. If it truly intends not to agree to the original terms of the agreement, the state has the right to toss out the merger agreement, in part or in full, canceling the merger. Of course, Charter can always take the matter to court and hope it can find a judge that will accept Charter’s ‘partial agreement’ argument.

To say the PSC was displeased with Charter’s novel legal maneuver would be an understatement. In today’s ruling, the PSC severely admonished Charter for its bad behavior:

Charter was not free to pick and choose the conditions it would accept or the portions of the Approval Order with which it would comply, nor was Charter free to accept only some of the conditions in the Approval Order and Appendix A yet still obtain Commission approval of the merger transaction. Charter is likewise not free to rewrite the Commission’s conditions.

In effect, Charter is ripping off the people of New York, and the state’s regulators are having none of it.

“The Commission is troubled by Charter’s position that the Commission’s Approval Order means something other than what it actually states,” the PSC wrote. “Given that many of the obligations in that Order are continuing and will need to be fulfilled in the future, the Commission believes it is critical that Charter acknowledge the obligations it agreed to undertake in exchange for the benefits it received by the Commission’s conditional approval. Anything short of an unconditional full acceptance of the Approval Order and Appendix A would deprive New York state of its fair share of the incremental benefits.”

It is likely we will know where this is headed by mid-July, because the PSC has given Charter 14 days to recommit itself to the PSC’s original merger terms, not just those in infamous Appendix A. It signaled it will no longer debate the matter, either, telling Charter “the Commission will not countenance that conduct” and wants action:

Charter is directed to cure its defective acceptance and file with the Secretary to the Commission a new letter indicating its full unconditional acceptance of the Approval Order and Appendix A thereof within 14 days.

Should Charter, however, fail to provide a new letter indicating full unconditional acceptance, the Commission may pursue other remedies at its disposal, including but not necessarily limited to the following.

First, beginning proceedings pursuant to PSL §216 to rescind, modify or amend the Approval Order, specifically, the Commission’s approval of the transfer of the Time Warner’s cable franchises and associated facilities, networks, works and systems to Charter, in whole or in part.

Second, initiate an enforcement action pursuant to PSL §26 for failing to comply with the Approval Order’s Ordering Clause 1 including an action in Supreme Court to adjudicate the dispute and/or declare the Commission’s conditional approval null and void for lack of an unconditional acceptance.

And, third, initiate a penalty action for being out of compliance with the Approval Order’s unconditional acceptance requirement under PSL §25.

It’s a teachable moment for regulators, one that cable customers have come to learn over decades of bad experiences. It’s never a good idea to trust a cable company.

Cable Industry Prepares Solution for TV Password Sharing Abuse

Phillip Dampier April 4, 2018 Consumer News, Online Video No Comments

A company is testing a solution to video subscription password abuse that will register each device authorized to access streaming video, while giving customers a Forever Login, ending the need to regularly re-enter usernames and passwords to watch.

Synacor is responding to growing concerns from some in the cable industry that subscription television password sharing is allowing unauthorized access to content viewers did not pay to view. The new system is an attempt to upgrade the authenticated TV Everywhere experience to reduce subscriber inconvenience while locking down the number of concurrent devices allowed to view online content.

Currently, when a customer accesses subscription-required content online, they are asked to select their TV provider and then enter their assigned username and password to verify they are a current subscriber to a video package that includes that network. Once authenticated, the network’s website controls how long user credentials are kept before they must be re-entered, as well as how many concurrent viewing sessions from multiple family members are permitted.

TV Everywhere services were originally designed to allow the subscriber and anyone else living within the home to be able to access networks like CNN, HBO, ESPN, and others on portable devices in-home and while on the go. But many customers also share their user credentials with extended family members and friends who do not live at the same address. Unauthorized third parties also occasionally obtain user credentials through brute force hacking and sell them on the black market. The subscriber usually only discovers a security problem with their account when they reach the concurrent viewing limit, which displays as an on-screen message stating the maximum number of viewers are already watching content through a subscription and at least one must disconnect before a new stream can be viewed.

Cable company executives hold a variety of opinions about the seriousness of password sharing. Altice and Comcast, and programmers like Time Warner, Inc., which owns HBO and Cinemax, have not shown much concern about the practice, but Charter/Spectrum executives have, and are leading the charge to lock down subscriber authentication.

Synacor’s new system introduces a new layer of cable company-defined limits on streaming: registering each device allowed to view content as well as checking how many people are attempting to stream content simultaneously.

Under the new system, a customer will be permitted to register a limited number of “trusted devices” allowed access to streamed video content. A cable company, for example, could limit subscribers to two smartphones, one tablet, and one smart/internet-enabled TV or Roku box. Even if the subscriber has other devices, they would have to unregister an existing device before being allowed to register a new one. Additionally, a cable operator could limit concurrent streams to two or three, either per network or per account, regardless of what networks are being watched. That would mean, in one example, a family of four would designate a maximum of five “trusted devices” and be allowed to watch up to three concurrent streams per account. “Bill” could watch ESPN on the bedroom television, “Mary” could watch a murder-mystery on the Hallmark Channel on her tablet on the patio, and “Dylan” could watch a movie on HBO on his phone at the same time. But if “Sara” decided to watch a show on Lifetime on her phone, the system would block the request.

In the past, it was likely all four family members could watch concurrent streams of their shows on virtually any device they like, and they could also share login credentials with “Jeff” — a family member at college, who in turn shared his username and password with the other people living in his dorm room — exactly the kind of thing Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge would like to stop.

Synacor claims its new system is still a positive for consumers because it allows user credentials to be stored in perpetuity, ending the need for frequent logins to re-verify and re-authenticate one’s account, regardless of where they are. Synacor’s executive director of identity services, John Kavanagh, suggests it is a win-win for companies and consumers.

“They wanted to deliver the same user experience benefit…and we brought the trust along with it with device registration,” Kavanagh said. “The end-user experience of home-based authentication really set a high bar. They wanted to take that high bar and extend it elsewhere.”

But many subscribers, especially those with larger families, are likely to balk at the new restrictions, especially if cable operators offer to ease them in return for additional fees. The process of registering devices is also likely to be seen as cumbersome by those not technically proficient, as well as those who own a large assortment of electronic devices.

Multichannel News reports a recent study from Hub Research and CTAM that monitors the TV Everywhere market surveyed 3,491 TV subscribers who watch at least five hours of television a week and discovered 28% claimed that password sharing with friends and family members was okay and permitted by their provider, although generally it is not. Another 33% believed password sharing was allowed for family members who have since moved out of the family home and live elsewhere. No provider authorizes such viewing.

The cable industry generally does not mind password sharing for family members who are traveling or attending school and live outside of the home in a dorm, or watching on a device that belongs to a friend. They do mind if that friend keeps the user credentials and watches programming without their own subscription.

Kavanagh claims the biggest concern is “commercial-level” black market sales of user credentials to third parties who have no relationship to the account owner.

“Once we’re able to register that device securely as part of the sign-in flow, we then connect that with a complete list of devices that have been used with a given subscription,” Kavanagh said. “We not only expose that master list to the end user for their own benefit on things that might be suspicious, but on the operator side, it gives them a depth of awareness they haven’t had before. It allows them to have a fine instrument to enforce their business rules and security policies.”

Both customers and cable operators can see who is currently accessing content using their account and cancel authorization for device(s) they no longer own, lost, or are being used by those who do not have an association with the account holder at all.

The new system is being introduced on an experimental basis to some current customers, starting with Service Electric Cablevision. It is likely similar rollouts will happen with Synacor’s other clients, which include:

  • Streaming Services: Sling TV, PlayStation Vue, HBO
  • Telco TV: AT&T, Cincinnati Bell, Verizon, Windstream, CenturyLink
  • Fiber/Cable TV: WOW!, Armstrong Cable, Atlantic Broadband, Cable One, Mediacom, GCI, Hotwire Communications, Charter/Spectrum, Grande Communications

Capped Comcast Customers Play Columbo to Identify Data Hogging Services

Nathan Gray woke up one morning this month and received an alarming notification from Comcast, his internet provider, claiming he had exceeded his Comcast terabyte data cap and was being billed an additional $10 for a 50 GB allotment of extra data.

“This has never happened before and I was only six days into my monthly billing cycle, so I assumed it must be a mistake,” Gray told Stop the Cap! “But Comcast told me it wasn’t a mistake.”

Gray was hardly alone. One month earlier, “Bogreenwoo” discovered his family had blown the roof off their internet usage, exceeding 1 TB by the middle of the billing cycle, with more usage piling up hour after hour.

“Xfinity was adding 50 GB blocks every day at $10 each and calls to tech support were no help,” he shared on Comcast’s customer support forum.

Similar complaints are brought up on that forum at least weekly, if not more often. Comcast counterclaims that usage exceeding 1 TB a month is so rare, it represents only about 1% of its customer base. But customers with huge internet bills from Comcast who stumble their way to the company’s support forum strongly dispute that notion.

“Well good luck with finding a solution or even finding anyone at Comcast who cares or anyone anywhere else as far as that goes,” shared “Amaasing.” “I have had this issue more than once and have talked with every vice president of customer service and had discussions with the security department and even filed a complaint with the FCC and nothing happened at all.”

Some users, like Amaasing, have received so many bills stung with overlimit fees they now turn their computers off in the evening and unplug their cable modems. In many cases the usage keeps rising anyway.

“Today when I logged in, I had apparently used 196 GB yesterday,” Amaasing wrote. “196 GB in 24 hours?  Seriously?”

For most customers in this predicament, Comcast is quick to blame customers for the usage and leave the detective work up to them. Customer support will not entertain suggestions their usage meter is inaccurate. In their view, it is more likely someone is illicitly connected to your Wi-Fi and stealing your service or you are running some bandwidth-heavy application or your computer has been hijacked by hackers or pirates.

While you are left to investigate which of these might be true, Comcast is free to continue billing your account overlimit fees.

Comcast claims it will forgive customers who exceed their data allowance twice ‘a year’:

“We’ll provide you with two courtesy months, so you will not be billed the first two times you exceed a terabyte while you are getting used to the new data usage plan. This means that you will only be subject to overage charges if you use more than a terabyte for a third time in a 12-month period. If you use more than a terabyte two times or less in a 12-month period, your courtesy month balance will reset to two at the end of these 12 months. However, if you use more than a terabyte three times in a 12-month period, no more courtesy months will be given.”

After “courtesy months” expire, you are on the hook for whatever excess usage Comcast determines you have consumed. Some Comcast customers assume the courtesy month counter resets each calendar year, but in fact it only resets after 12 consecutive months of staying within your allowance limit.

What causes “excess usage” is anyone’s guess. Comcast customers have documented several recent causes why they have mysteriously started blowing through their 1 TB data allowance:

  1. The growing prevalence of 4K video, the highest streaming video quality available through online video streaming services can be responsible for a sudden spike of usage. Netflix and other services that support 4K video content with high dynamic range can eat up 7 GB to 10 GB of data per hour. Many services allow you to downgrade your video settings with minimal quality loss. We recommend trying settings typically labeled 720 or 1080 — the lower the better if you are running up against your allowance.
  2. Third party backup and cloud storage tools: That online backup or cloud storage service you are using may be malfunctioning. There are several reports about Amazon Drive having problems recently, causing files to be repeatedly transferred and driving up usage to several hundred gigabytes a day in some cases. If you use Amazon Drive and have seen a huge spike in usage, try uninstalling or turning off the service for several days and see if usage falls dramatically. Other file and computer backup services that store your data in the cloud can consume a lot of data, especially when installing them on a new computer for the first time. Even some cell phone backup services designed to store your photos in the cloud can malfunction and repeatedly try to send the same photos over and over. Disable these tools for several days and check your usage levels.
  3. Third party usage: Family members doing something bandwidth intensive can also be responsible for dramatic usage spikes. Although downloading video game updates can consume very large amounts of data, game play itself typically has little impact on your data usage. Check with family members to see if they are watching high bandwidth video or have installed a file backup service. Less common is an uninvited guest on your Wi-Fi network. Comcast often points to Wi-Fi security as a major problem when a neighbor gains access to your internet connection to download huge numbers of files. You can change your Wi-Fi password to help lock down your network. Make sure not to use plain word passwords — use a mixture of letters, numbers, and symbols.
  4. Comcast’s meter is simply inaccurate. There is no independent third-party verification or government oversight of Comcast’s usage meter. Most ISPs hire a third-party contractor to design and implement their data measurement meters, but those contractors are ultimately answerable to the provider — not to you, giving little peace of mind to consumers who are forced to trust their cable company to be honest. Our country’s Founding Fathers placed great importance on accurate measuring and weighing tools, so much so it is addressed in Section VIII of Article I of the U.S. Constitution. That section gives authority to Congress to establish accurate and regulated measurement tools. Each state has their own way of managing this, often with a bureau of weights and measurements that independently verifies and certifies — with a tamper-evident sticker, the accuracy of the food scale at your local grocer or the gas pump at a nearby service station. Comcast has resisted similar third-party oversight for its usage meter. But considering the company’s overlimit fees can add a substantial sum to customer bills, having this kind of oversight seems appropriate.

Avoiding the usage cap: Comcast ironically provides its own insurance plan to protect customers from its own arbitrary data allowance. For peace of mind, Comcast collects an extra $50 a month ($20 for gigabit speed DOCSIS 3.1 plans) if you wish to waive the data cap altogether. Data caps are completely under the control of Comcast and are especially prevalent in regions of the country where a lack of competition exists. But Comcast’s arguments in favor of data caps don’t wash at the nation’s second largest cable company – Charter Communications, which markets its internet service as having no data caps at all. In fact, Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge never saw much use for data caps at Charter or Cablevision, the company he used to head.

Debunking arguments for usage caps at Comcast and other ISPs. (5:46)

N.Y. Attorney General Overcomes Charter’s Legal Objections to Slow Internet Lawsuit

Phillip Dampier February 20, 2018 Charter Spectrum, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't 6 Comments

Charter Communications will have to face a courtroom to answer accusations the cable company intentionally sold internet service at speeds it knew it could not provide to its customers in New York.

New York State Supreme Court Justice O. Peter Sherwood rejected a motion by the cable company to dismiss New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s 2017 lawsuit accusing Time Warner Cable (now owned by Charter) of systematically shortchanging as many as 640,000 New York internet customers by falsely advertising internet speeds it knew it could not deliver, often with at least 900,000 outdated company-provided cable modems incapable of supporting the higher speeds the company promoted.

“Today’s decision by the New York Supreme Court marks a major victory for New York consumers — rejecting every single argument made by Charter-Spectrum in its attempts to block our lawsuit,” said Schneiderman. “This decision ensures that our office can continue to hold Charter-Spectrum to account for its failure to deliver the reliable internet speeds it promised consumers, ripping you off by promising internet speeds it simply could not deliver.”

Charter’s Defense: Spectrum’s Ad Claims for Fast Internet Service are: “Prototypical instances of non-actionable puffery.”

Charter’s lawyers attempted a variety of legal strategies to get Schneiderman’s lawsuit tossed, including undermining the cable company’s own marketing efforts. Lawyers argued the court should ignore Charter’s claims it sold a “blazing fast, super-reliable connection” that could “stream Netflix and Hulu movies and shows effortlessly” as nothing more than “prototypical instances of non-actionable puffery.”

Scheniderman’s office claimed it was much more than that.

N.Y. Attorney General Eric Schneiderman

“Spectrum-TWC failed to maintain enough network capacity in the form of interconnection ports to deliver this promised content to its subscribers without slowdowns, interruptions, and data loss,” stated Schneiderman. “It effectively ‘throttled’ access to Netflix and other content providers by allowing the ports through which its network interconnects with data coming from those providers to degrade, causing slowdowns. Spectrum-TWC then extracted payments from those content providers as a condition for upgrading the ports As a result, Spectrum-TWC’s subscribers could not reliably access the content they were promised, and instead were subjected to the buffering, slowdowns and other interruptions in service that they had been assured they would not encounter.”

Charter also claimed it was not legally responsible for meeting its own advertised speeds because the company only sold speeds “up to” a level, without guaranteeing customers would get the speeds it advertised.

Even if a judge found Charter lacking in its legal defense, lawyers for the company more broadly argued that under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s net neutrality order, state courts and regulators had no power to regulate or oversee broadband providers because “regulation of broadband internet access service should be governed principally by a uniform set of federal regulations, rather than by a patchwork of separate state and local requirements,” according to Charter’s attorney Christopher Clark.

Justice Sherwood uniformly rejected all of Charter’s arguments to dismiss the case:

  • Improper state venue for the lawsuit: “Spectrum-TWC fails to identify any provision [of law] that preempts state anti-fraud or consumer-protection claims, or reflects any intention by Congress to make federal law the exclusive source of law protecting consumers from broadband providers’ deceptive conduct.”
  • False advertising: “This court finds that, contrary to defendants’ contentions, the FCC’s goal of promoting competition through [the Internet Transparency Rule], the FCC stated that the rule was intended to ensure consumers had the “right to accurate information, so [they] can choose, monitor, and receive the broadband internet services they have been promised. New York’s Executive Law and Consumer Protection Act […] require that [providers] refrain from fraud, deception, and false advertising when communicating with New York consumers.
  • Netflix/YouTube slowdowns: The issue of interconnection agreements between content providers and Spectrum-TWC are matters for the court to consider because it is not an attempt to regulate those agreements. “Rather, the complaint simply alleges that Spectrum-TWC misled subscribers by claiming that specific online content would be swiftly accessible through its network, while it was simultaneously deliberately allowing that service to degrade […] and failing to upgrade its network’s capacity to meet demand for this content.”
  • “Up to” speeds: Spectrum-TWC claimed that advertising speeds “up to” a certain level was not misleading because consumers understood this to mean the maximum speed, not average speed. In Spectrum’s argument, it claimed “reasonable consumers understand this is not a promise of ‘minimum’ performance, but rather ‘maximum’ performance.” But the judge disagreed. “Defendant’s theory is contrary to New York law regarding ‘up to’ claims” when those speeds are “functionally unattainable as a result of the defendants’ knowing conduct.”

Schneiderman’s office is seeking civil fines and restitution from Spectrum-TWC for customers in New York.

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:

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