As Burlington, Vermont, searches for a buyer for Burlington Telecom, the local residents and business owners continue to remain engaged in the future of their beloved Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) network. Most recently, they made it clear that their first priority is finding a local company to own and operate the fiber network.
VT Digger reported that, according to a survey conducted by the BT Board of Advisors:
Several residents have said they would like to see Burlington Telecom sold to a locally owned co-operative and that their greatest concern is the utility being sold to one of its larger competitors such as Comcast, AT&T or FairPoint.
Though the City is precluded by the terms of its settlement Agreement with Citibank from continuing to own the Asset, a carried equity interest is permitted. It is important that all ownership options be explored and considered in light of the legal requirements and the City’s goals for BT. However, the BTAB [Burlington Telecom Advisory Board] agrees with the vast majority of interested participants in this process that the sale of BT to one of its existing, national competitors would likely not be in the overall best interests of the City.
At a recent meeting, David Provost, chair of the advisory board said, “The best option from our perspective is finding a buyer with ties to the local community that will allow the city to have a minority stake in Burlington Telecom."
A Troubled Past, An Uncertain Future
After years of cover-ups by the city's past leadership, CitiBank eventually sued Burlington for $33 million. The parties settled and, as part of the settlement, Burlington transferred ownership to Blue Water LLC, a company formed by Burlington businessman Trey Pecor. In exchange, Blue Water provided $6 million in bridge financing to allow the city to settle the lawsuit with Citibank. The city is still leasing the network temporarily but the ultimate goal is to find a partner to purchase the network.
According to the terms of the settlement, Burlington can choose the new buyer but the sale must be finalized by January 2019. If not, Blue Water can choose the buyer and residents are worried it may end up being a company like Comcast, with no interest in the local community.
In December, as the BTAB wrapped up public meetings about the future of the network, VT Digger reported:
“We’ve heard very little to date about the $17 million,” Provost said, which is the amount of taxpayer money that was spent without authorization during Mayor Bob Kiss’ tenure to prop up Burlington Telecom. Provost said that’s come as a surprise, given the angry reaction from the public when that was revealed in 2009.
But at Wednesday’s meeting, participants weren’t evenly split on the issue. Most said they would like to see the city or residents retain some level of ownership in Burlington Telecom. One resident explained that, as a taxpayer, she would rather be able to use the asset than recoup the loss.
Residents Take Action
In late 2012, the Keep BT Local! Cooperative formed in an effort to maintain public ownership of the network. The co-op has been collecting equity and loan pledges with the long-term goal of obtaining approximately 4,000 residential and business membership pledges. The effort is ongoing and the group has said on their Facebook page that Members will be hearing more soon.