Of course a mystery website attacking city-run broadband was run by an ISP. Of course
Fidelity wanted to 'tell the other side of the story' with astroturfing dot-com
Analysis Cable biz Fidelity Communications has been forced to admit it was behind an astroturfing campaign against a city-run fiber network in America's Midwest.
The campaign, titled Stop City-Funded Internet, started last month with a website and accompanying social media handles, and has been a persistent critic of efforts by West Plains, Missouri, to expand its homegrown broadband network to include more businesses and even residential customers.
Who exactly is behind the campaign has been the subject of intense interest with the campaign's main website revealing only that it was funded by "a collection of fiscally conservative Missourians."
However one enterprising local – videographer Isaac Protiva – was able to uncover the truth: cable company Fidelity Communications, which offers internet access in five states including Missouri, and boasts 115,000 customers. The ISP had paid a marketing outfit based in Arizona to carry out the campaign.
How did he figure it out? The marketing company screwed up when it named materials on stopcityfundedinternet.com. Specifically, two images on the site were spotted revealing Fidelity as a client. Incredibly, one was the site's main header image, called Fidelity_SCFI_Website_V2.jpg. The second image was on a privacy page, and was hosted on a server called fidelity.dmwebtest.com. Talk about a smoking gun.
That server's domain name led back to DM Web Dev Group, based in Scottsdale, Arizona, owned by marketing veterans Martin Lakin and David Ammerman.
So, about that...
Protiva documented his findings in a YouTube video at the end of January, and incredibly it prompted a formal response a few days later from Fidelity to the campaign's Facebook page – although there remains no mention of the corporate funding on the anonymous campaign website nor Fidelity's own website. The images have since been replaced to remove any mention of Fidelity.
"There has been a tremendous amount of conversation about the ownership of this page," the post declared, with this letter attached. "Today we offer what we hope will provide some clarity via an official statement from Fidelity Communications about their support of our efforts in promoting a conversation about city owned Internet in West Plains."
The unsigned letter began, "We would like to take this opportunity to respond to questions we have received about our stance on the City of West Plains’ launch of internet services as a ‘public utility'," before launching in a rundown of how the company feels it has been badly treated by the city of West Plains.
It argued, using the Citizens United Supreme Court logic, that "first and foremost, we are a citizen of West Plains, and we, like each of you, want West Plains, its residents and businesses to grow and prosper."
But it waited until the last paragraph to admit that the cable company is behind the campaign. It read: "In an effort to reach out to the public and to tell the other side of the story, we have engaged a third party to launch and maintain a 'Stop City-Funded Internet' Facebook page and related stopcityfundedinternet.com website."
Responding to the letter on his own Facebook page, Protiva noted: "My job here is done."
This is far from the first time a cable company has run an astroturf campaign against potential competitors. However, the the risk of exposure from doing so has prompted many to go a different route, and use lobbyists to reach lawmakers to kick start legislation that makes it much harder for municipal networks to get up and running.
In the case of West Plains, however, the ISP was up against city administrator Tom Stehn, who appears to have played things by the book and was savvy enough to have enlisted congressional support for his city's broadband plans. Stehn is also an engineer, which may explain why the municipal network has not run into some of the same problems similar projects in other cities across the nation have encountered.
Back in December 2015, the city decided to build its own municipal fiber network after a survey of local businesses revealed that they were unhappy at the quality and cost of their internet connections. Some firms were paying three times the amount for similar connectivity available in nearby cities.
The letter from Fidelity Communications referenced that disquiet, and noted that "the city and the Broadband Study Group expressed concern that we weren’t providing service in a few areas, we weren’t offering one Gig service… and that we were charging special construction charges to reach certain businesses."
It argued: "We acknowledged and addressed those concerns. We agreed to serve any business within the city limits without charging any special construction costs. We have also increased speeds to all of our business customers several times, without charging additional fees. Moreover, we upgraded our equipment and facilities to provide one Gig service throughout the entire city limits."
It went on: "In December of 2016, we met with the city and asked if there was anything else we could be doing? They said 'No,' and indicated they were satisfied with our services."
It is a story playing out across America right now: communities are frustrated at the low speed and high cost of their internet connections, and blame their ISPs – many of which possess virtual monopolies – for it.
Those ISPs feel justified in their offerings, however, due to the significant financial and time resources required to build a physical network. Those companies had factored in effective control of a market in their decisions to invest and expand into various regions.
And then along came city councils that decided to invest in their own networks, using taxpayers' dollars, with a view that internet access is a public utility along the same lines as water or electricity.
In some cases, municipal networks have revealed that when profit incentive and market control are taken out of the equation, it is possible to get much faster internet access to consumers at a much lower price. However, there have also been stumbles, with some city councils spending tens of millions of dollars on a network that it is then in no position to administer.
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From the outside, it looks as though West Plains sits in the first category, thanks in no short measure to Stehn's conservative approach. Fidelity Communications noted that the city has spend $413,000 so far on its network, with revenue of just $6,000. It is budgeted to spend another $618,000 this financial year on the network.
But, Fidelity pointed out, the city is in deficit so far this year by $1.3m. The implication is that West Plain's fiber expansion plans could put the city further into the red while effectively making it impossible for others to compete. "Under the guise of promoting local business, the city seems intent on pushing us out of town," the Fidelity letter complained.
It went on: "The city has taken these actions with only limited input from its residents, and certainly without a vote of the public. The city has no published business plan explaining how it will fund what will be the millions of dollars it will spend."
Well, sort of
Which is only partly true. The decision to build the network was done following a public consultation, and Stehn has been upfront about both the costs of the network and his concerns related to it.
He has spoken repeatedly to journalists about the idea, and has been open about how it is being financed: "We're kind of borrowing from the electric department, and then as we add customers and all that, we're going to try to pay that back as much as we can," he told a local radio station.
He has also outlined the costs of the project as it has progressed, and noted when a public vote would be forthcoming. "Our estimate right now if we would fund the whole thing is $15m," he said, "which would include the residential and commercial service. We probably would be looking at some type of bonding in some fashion, either fully or partially. This would have to go to the vote of the people for the City of West Plains, but those are things we're still trying to work out as we test pilot our system."
Faced with what looks like a determined and organized plan to use taxpayers' money to build out a fiber network, it's hardly surprising that Fidelity Communications is not excited about the prospect of losing its client base in a profitable market.
But was secretly funding an attack campaign against the idea the right approach? It seems unlikely. Just because astroturf campaigns have become an increasingly common tactic by large corporations doesn't mean they're a good idea. And if Fidelity is reliant on local goodwill to build its business, this was a serious error of judgment.
Its letter ended: "It is our sincere hope to work with the city, its businesses and residents to continue to provide superior services within West Plains." Good luck with that, Fidelity. ®