To hear Mayor Miro Weinberger tell it, getting Burlington Telecom out of city ownership will be a big win for Burlington and its taxpayers. But some of the network’s high-profile proponents have serious concerns.
They say the city’s settlement with Citibank over unpaid BT bills and a financing plan with Merchant’s Bank and local businessman Trey Pecor put the high-tech telecom on an uncertain and perilous path.
“Why are we selling the goose that’s laying the golden egg?” asks Lauren-Glenn Davitian, the executive director of the Center For Media & Democracy, which operates Channel 17 in Burlington.
The city has phrased Burlington Telecom’s future differently. Officials say the city hopes to find a “partner” in the private sector to take whole or partial ownership of BT, but the details of how that would work are murky so far.
The lack of clarity, and concerns that BT’s future is being decided behind closed doors, has Davitian and others worried.
“It isn’t even the next owner that we’re concerned about,” she said, referencing Pecor’s new entity, Bluewater, “it’s the owner after that.”
The worst-case scenario, according to Davitian and others, is if cable giant Comcast owned the Burlington Telecom network.
Bradley Holt is the leader of Code For BTV, a local branch of Code For America, which aims to make government more accessible through the use of open data and citizen-designed apps.
In Holt’s mind, some of these projects would become “completely unworkable” under Comcast or a similar company.
“The telecom industry in general is one that profits off of scarcity – that profits off of having a limited resource to sell,” Holt said. “And the network that we have here is an abundant network. Most telecoms, in that scenario, their business models would lead them to making artificial scarcity around that resource.”
That doesn’t fit with the numerous community projects based on the open use of Burlington’s state-of-the-art fiber connection. BTV Ignite, the local chapter of U.S. Ignite, launched last fall with a mission of better leveraging the city’s gigabit fiber connection to meet economic and community development goals.
Front and center at the BTV Ignite launch was Mayor Miro Weinberger, whose plan for Burlington Telecom is, to hear Holt say it, at odds with the organization’s very mission.
“My concern,” Holt said, “is that if we have a Burlington Telecom that is owned by a private entity, that we won’t be able to have these same community and economic development benefits that we’re able to have now through this infrastructure – that the interests of a private entity won’t be aligned with our local community.”
But Weinberger himself hasn’t made any indication that Comcast or another large corporation would be his choice to buy the network. In fact, at the announcement of the Bluewater financing deal, the mayor didn’t even list selling the company as one of the top three goals of the deal.
The goals, he said at the time, were to protect Burlington taxpayers, continue BT service and “as much as possible, achieve the original goals and the current economic development goals and community development goals for Burlington Telecom.”
Pecor, at the announcement, made his understanding clear: “We’re going to sell this thing,” he said. “That’s what the city wants. That’s what I want.”
Critics of the plan say the city shouldn’t be so quick to offload the network, which despite its past, is still a major asset for the city. But at the Bluewater announcement in March, Weinberger said a sale has been the plan since 2010, when the committee investigating past mismanagement at the telecom recommended a private partnership.
A few hundred Burlingtonians are working on a potential solution that would simultaneously allow for the sale of Burlington Telecom to a private entity and keep it in local hands.
Keep BT Local is a cooperative made up of 200 members working on a plan to be the private partner that Weinberger is seeking.
“If [sale] was the approach the city’s going to take, we wanted to have a group that would have the potential to keep it as broadly locally owned and controlled as possible,” said Alan Matson, one of the organizers.
One of the main barriers to a cooperatively owned BT was the pending lawsuit with Citibank, Matson said. Now that the Bluewater deal has funded a settlement with the bank, Matson said he sees opportunity for the plan to grow membership and develop a financing plan for a potential purchase.
“The big brick wall has been the Citibank litigation,” he said. With the Bluewater deal moving forward, “it’s exactly the right time for us to make a stronger push for the broader awareness."