In an attempt to negatively influence public opinion, the incumbent cable ISP in West Plains, Missouri, was recently caught masquerading behind a phony citizens group. A real group of locals who support the community’s efforts discovered the astroturf connection and, with no way to deny their involvement, Fidelity Communications tried to rationalize away their subversive tactics to poison the project.
The Needs Of West Plains
About a year ago, we connected with City Administrator Tom Stehn, who described the situation in the south central town of about 12,000 people. Stehn told the story of how in 2015, the city decided to connect its municipal facilities with fiber and how, when word got out about the project, people in the business community approached the city. Even though local businesses could get cable Internet access, rates were up to three times higher than similar services in urban areas. There were also reliability issues that interfered with local commerce.
West Plains had also experienced significant job losses in recent years when several employers left town or closed shop. The city considered a fiber network an economic development tool and a way to keep the local hospital and MSU campus connected with high-quality connectivity. Stehn told Christopher that when new businesses considered moving to West Plains, one of the five questions they always asked was, “What kind of Internet access do you have?” It made good sense to expand the original plan to offer local businesses access to the publicly owned network.
West Plains was offering symmetrical connections to local businesses early in 2017 and had even started offering gigabit service.
The Pilot And The Incumbent
The city’s effort to bring better connectivity to a wide range of businesses and residents included a pilot project in West Plains’s Southern Hills district. In the fall of 2017, the city offered gigabit Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) connectivity to approximately 80 businesses and 14 residences as a way to work out potential issues and refine their services.
Around the same time, incumbent cable ISP Fidelity Communications announced that they would be upgrading services in West Plains to offer gigabit download Internet access with 10 Megabits per second (Mbps) upload. Fidelity’s offering isn’t as useful to commercial customers without the robust upload speeds, but their willingness to respond to the city’s efforts shows the value of competition.
The Threat Of Competition
By the end of 2017, the StopCityFundedInternet.com website appeared, claiming to be a group of “fiscally conservative Missourians” that adhere to the belief that West Plains is “leveraging taxpayer funds on high-risk endeavors that compete with services already provided by the private sector.” In reality, the website is funded by Fidelity Communications, who hired an out-of-state marketing firm to build the website and maintain their Facebook and Twitter accounts.
With a strategy much like Comcast’s failed Fort Collins effort last fall, Fidelity’s astroturf campaign takes aim at the contention that the city would better serve citizens by spending money on other infrastructure, such as roads, bridges, public safety, and schools. The website also lists a few examples of other communities that they describe as failures, some of which are far from it and others which are the same few that the anti-muni lobby rely on for their typical shaky arguments.
Fidelity didn’t take into account Isaac Protiva, a real West Plains citizen and some one who sees the network as a benefit to the city; he heads up the group Internet Choice West Plains. Protiva did some investigative work, and he walks us through his discoveries in a video he posted online, which shows that the image paths from StopCityFundedInternet.com are linked to Fidelity. Oops.
The firm maintaining the website disabled the ability for the Internet Archive to preserve snapshots of the code on the page, of course.
For more on Comcast's investment on the Fort Collins election and why they decided to spend over $900,000 in the guise of a citizens group check out our report from the fall of 2017 and our follow-up story from after the election, when all totals had been reported.
Protiva published his video on January 31st and by February 3rd, Fidelity Communications felt the need to respond with a lengthy, unsigned letter on the StopCityFundedInternet Facebook page. The letter includes and admission that they hired the firm to put together the anti-muni campaign in the name of “telling the other side of the story.” They claim that, since they are headquartered in a town about 125 miles away and employ 16 people in the region, Fidelity Communications is also "a citizen” of West Plains. Mostly they complain that the city, after losing confidence and trust in Fidelity, decided to take steps to boost economic development.
Fidelity Communications writes that the city “seems intent on pushing us out of town” indicating that they have no interest in competing with another provider.
The Data Errors, The Slanted Reports
As in the case with similar attempts by Comcast in Fort Collins last fall, StopCityFundedInternet.com and its FB page attempt to persuade West Plains with reports that are fraught with errors from questionable sources. They quote the Taxpayers Protection Alliance, a group that is a front for the cable industry, and the New York Law School, the darling of the anti-muni cable industry complex. They lean heavily on 2017 report from UPenn that we examined in depth. Even though one of the authors acknowledged several errors, Fidelity’s campaign continues to push its incorrect narrative.
In short, nothing we haven’t seen before.
West Plains will continue to provide the connectivity local businesses needs and, based on the results of the pilot project, may go on to offer services to residents. Whatever they decide, they’ve already made progress for the people of West Plains simply by giving the incumbent a reason to offer better services.
When Tom Stehn spoke with Christopher during episode 244 of the Community Broadband Bits back in March 2017, one of his strongest concerns was customer service. He felt that, if the city was going to offer Internet access to the community, success depended on good customer relations. Fidelity Communications reviews on Yelp reveal that customers are especially frustrated with poor customer service, which might account for their average score of only 1 1/2 stars. These reviews were submitted by Fidelity customers in Lawton, Oklahoma; there were no reviews from West Plains customers.
Protiva’s discovery has brought come attention to Fidelity’s dishonesty, West Plains, and the municipal project. The city has cut public costs, in part by reducing telephone lines, and now the city advertises business connectivity on its website. Stehn and his staff press on and don’t seem interested in pushing anyone out of town, just in welcoming more by offering better connectivity.