Tag: "Burlington Telecom"

Posted January 25, 2011 by christopher

We are posting another perspective about Burlington Telecom, this time from Tom Streeter, a Professor of Sociology at UVM and author of Selling the Air, The Net Effect and other works about telecommunication.  He circulated this letter in the community and gave us permission to republish it here. Read his original PDF here.

There's no doubt that the Burlington Telecom situation is a serious mess. But in all the accusations and counter-accusations, it can be hard to get some perspective on the nature of the problem. I've been studying things like cable TV, the internet, and telecommunications for most of my career, and I think a sense of the larger picture might help.

First, nobody has been accused of lining their private pockets with public money. There is nothing about the current scandal reminiscent of the one surrounding BT's former legal antagonist Adelphia Cable, whose CEO is still cooling his heels in jail for essentially stealing from his own company. Second, Burlington Telecom is hardly alone in having a hard time paying the bills. Vermont's primary telephone service provider, Fairpoint, filed for bankruptcy late in 2009, and cable providers nationwide are scrambling for ways to stay alive nationwide in the face of the first annual decline in cable subscriptions in the industry's history. Times are extremely tough throughout the industry, and the fact that BT is in a financial tight spot is by itself hardly surprising.

Another thing about telecommunications is that it is an infrastructure business. Like roads, bridges, and sewers, you have to build most of the thing to completion before you get the benefit; no one will pay the toll for a bridge that goes halfway across the river. So you have to spend the money up front in hopes of making the money back years into the future, a future which is impossible to know with certainty. BT had to spend the money...

Read more
Posted January 18, 2011 by christopher

Greg Eplerwood has chaired the two Burlington Telecom citizens' oversight committees and has paid closer to attention to BT than just about anyone. He submitted this opinion piece to us as well as shorter versions to local media in Burlington.

We are happy to publish it and hope others enjoy hearing from this unique perspective from the community.

Let me make one thing perfectly clear: I’m not an apologist for anything illegal, tergiversating, unethical or stupid that BT’s management may have done in the building of our municipal telecommunications system. But otherwise I am an unabashed supporter of our state-of-the-art, triple-play, fiber-to-the-premises information infrastructure. Between my wife and me, we subscribe to BT’s Standard Plus cable with HD and DVR, one home and two business telephone lines, and a 20 Mbps symmetrical Internet connection. Needless to say, our monthly bill is above average; however, we are pleased with our service and happy to pay it.

With all the bad news coming from various parties—the Department of Public Service, the Public Service Board, Comcast, two consulting firms, two resident litigants, private groups offering ‘assistance’ and the broadcast and print media in their incessant reporting of the mess—it would seem inevitable that Burlington’s reputation, bond rating, tax rate stability and world-class telecommunication system are all going down the crapper. Not to mention the damage that the Kiss administration may have done to the local Progressive Party.

Subscribership—literally the lifeblood of a venture like BT’s—has remained stagnant over the past two years. I don’t know about you, but hardly a week goes by without at least one, sometimes two, sales pieces coming in the mail from BT’s direct competitors: Comcast and Fairpoint. But when was the last time you’ve seen or heard a sales pitch from BT? As recently as 18 months ago I was blaming this on poor marketing. Since then I’ve been blaming it on BT’s low cash flow.

Putting blame aside for the moment, I ask my fellow residents, businesses and institutions of Burlington: If we refuse to subscribe to BT, who are we punishing? A better question might be this: Of the following players, which would you most want to see harmed if BT were to fail: Mayor Kiss, Chief Administrative Officer Leopold or your fellow Burlingtonians? If you are truly concerned about tax increases to pay BT’s debt, or...

Read more
Posted January 7, 2011 by christopher

New Update: Mediacom has invented language in the Joint Power Agreement and threatened the Mayors of Silver Bay and Two Harbors. Let's see how dirty Mediacom will get to prevent competition.

Lake County, recipient of a broadband stimulus award to build a rural county-wide (larger, actually) fiber-to-the-home network, has been wrestling with questions they have related to the problems at Burlington Telecom. After some lazy reporting in the Star Tribune and Duluth News Tribune exaggerated Tim Nulty's role in the problems Burlington Telecom now faces, some on the County Board began asking more questions of National Public Broadband (of which Tim is CEO).

I attended a meeting after Christmas to observe the discussion, share our understanding of the situation, and discuss the experiences of other community networks. Next week, the County Board plans to decide whether they will alter the arrangement with National Public Broadband or possibly seek another partner in the project -- a development that may have implications for changes or revocation of the stimulus funding.

It is important to note that due to structural differences, the problems in Burlington (which, at the least, were hidden from the public allowing them to snowball) are extremely unlikely to repeat in Lake County.

The Lake County Chronicle has published a lengthy editorial responding to concerns and noting the ramifications of any changes to the partnership with National Public Broadband. As of this writing, it is not yet behind a pay wall.

It offers some wise thoughts:

Like the debate over whether the meetings being held to draw up the rollout plans for the county should be public or private, NPB needs to better apply the rules of working within the expectations of open government. We demand transparency and a full accounting of tax dollars.

It’s fair to wonder, as some board members did last week, just what NPB would withhold from the board if things don’t go swimmingly with the Lake County plan. All adjustments, all bumps along the road, need to be publicly and fully discussed.

The county can use NPB’s disclosure...

Read more
Posted December 21, 2010 by christopher

There is so much to say about Burlington Telecom and its struggles that it cannot be covered in a single post. This is one of several posts that will discuss pieces of the situation. One of the questions that has been raised by the Larkin "audit" of BT is whether BT was losing money on the broadband it provided to City Departments.

Though the report prepared by Larkin for the State revealed a number of disturbing practices by Burlington Telecom, a number of them have been strongly disputed. The report clearly has a number of weaknesses, from an apparently lack of expertise on somewhat basic telecom economics to the fact that the "auditors" do not appear to have attempted to talk to anyone who knew anything about how BT operated.

That said, something surely went dramatically wrong with BT and the Larkin report may help shed light on it.

But when one reads articles in the local press about it, it is quickly evident that the writers have practically no understanding of what they write and harbor a strong hostility against Burlington Telecom. Consider this passage from the Burlington Free Press:

Auditors observed as well that the city, a prime user of BT services, was charged “below market rates” and “below BT’s cost of service. The low rates charged by BT ... to the city could be viewed as a form of cross-subsidization,” which, the audit notes, is a violation of a provision of BT’s state license. The building of the system in general, auditors said, was marked by a “lack of timely and accurate accounting information.”

While the quote does come from the Larkin report, it offers no foundation for the claim and later hedges against it (two paragraphs later -- all from page 26):

The fact that BT is providing services to various City departments at below- market rates that may be below BT’s cost of service, which could be viewed as a form of cross-subsidization, is a problem.

After stating without referencing any evidence that BT is providing services to Departments below the cost of provisioning, the conclusion two paragraphs below states BT may be providing services to departments at...

Read more
Posted December 20, 2010 by christopher

While the bad news about Burlington Telecom (BT) has traveled far and wide, it has been marked with errors, misinformation, and inaccurate comparisons to other projects. MuniNetworks.org will weigh in on this issue with a series of posts to explain what happened, what did not happen, and what lessons we can learn from it.

But today, we are publishing a commentary from Tim Nulty, the General Manager who started BT and is now working with the folks in East Central Vermont to build a rural FTTH network. In this commentary he discusses his experiences with Burlington Telecom and what lessons it has for the EC Fiber project. In short, they differ in important ways.

Business Plans of Burlington Telecom and ECFiber

Numerous loose allegations have recently appeared in the press regarding the business plans of Burlington Telecom and ECFiber. DPS Commissioner David O’Brien and John Briggs of the Burlington Free Press are examples but others have also chimed in. These statements are inaccurate, misinformed and unfounded. Since they affect organizations that are important to thousands of Vermonters they need to be corrected.

BT’s business plan was based on those of similar Fiber-to-the-Home (FTTH) networks already running and successful at the time…including Reedsburg, WI; Bristol, VA, Kutztown, PA; Dalton, GA and Winona, Minn. Experts from these projects were consulted in developing BT’s plan. Several came to Burlington to assist with and vet BT’s planning and BT staff visited them to in turn. All of these networks were built in towns, which like Burlington, had established broadband incumbents already in place so their experience was highly relevant. By their fifth year all these networks had achieved penetration rates over 55% and most over 65%. A study by survey firm RVA, in 2007 and updated in 2009 identified 57 municipal FTTH networks operating in the USA and calculated that the average penetration, including new start-ups, was 54%. BT’s business plan was constructed so that it would become profitable with 4800 - 5000 customers of the 19,500 potential—a more conservative take rate than comparable networks had actually achieved in practice. This provided BT with a substantial “safety cushion”.

All capital-intensive investments-- power stations, airports, steel mills--take some time to become profitable. This is also true of telecoms. Criticizing any FTTH network (...

Read more
Posted December 17, 2010 by christopher

Vermont's Department of Public Service has released its audit of Burlington Telecom. The audit is highly flawed and a disappointment in terms of actually illuminating what went wrong with Burlington.

We have been awaiting this audit in the hopes that it would actually explain how the network could have gone into such great debt so quickly. The few answers provided from this audit are entirely unsatisfactory, due in large part to its overall sloppiness. We will soon put up a more substantial post about Burlington and lessons learned, but we wanted to post this information now as readers are undoubtedly wondering.

The audit should be read by any community running or considering a network because it describes a number of bad practices that should not be duplicated. That said, it isn't yet clear how accurate the audit is (they did not even attempt to interview key people), as explained by Tim Nulty in his response to it (linked below). Perhaps the biggest disappointment is that the audit simply did not explain where the money went. Steve Ross examined this question more than a year ago, but we appear no closer to an answer. A longer explanation on this, next week.

Finally, Andrew Cohill's thoughts about lessons learned from BT is well worth a read as well. Regardless of whether BT really did make all those errors, Cohill's post should serve as an educational item to any community considering such an important investment.

Posted December 7, 2010 by christopher

The AP says Burlington Telecom may be a cautionary tale for cities around the the country that contemplate building their own networks.

It is fascinating that this article appears now, as we wait for the audit of Burlington to be published, where we hope to finally discover exactly what went wrong in the network. The Mayor used to allege that Tim Nulty (General Manager who built it) left it in ruin when he resigned.

However, it looked good (not great, but good) at that point. And after the transition, the Mayor's Administration ceased Nulty's policies of transparency, so we would have to take their word for it rather than any proof. For instance, BT ceased to work with citizen oversight committees. This is the same Administration that hid supposed transfers to the network from the City Council and the people.

The very fact that such secrecy was possible is troubling. These networks are intended to behave somewhat transparently and should be independently audited to ensure problems (which may be corrected when found) are not hidden for political reasons. Burlington had a unique structure that allowed the Mayor too much opaque control over the network - something rarely found in the structure of most community networks. (Some things, such as prices paid for content, should remain secret for competitive reasons, but that should not allow the Mayor to hide key metrics regarding the health of the network.)

There are reasons to believe the Mayor improperly accounted money to BT, which is why we await an audit from the state that we hope will clear up exactly how Burlington Telecom went from being a good example to the worst example of public ownership (something paid shills from telco and cableco groups critics love to point out).

Author Dave Gram has an odd passage regarding this situation:

In September 2009, BT notified the Vermont Public Service Board that it had used $17 million in city funds in violation of its state license. State officials have been mum about the details of their investigation, and an FBI spokesman, through an assistant, would not confirm or deny a Burlington Free Press report that that agency had stepped in. It's widely believed that apparent license...

Read more
Posted December 11, 2009 by christopher

As someone who has long researched and followed developments in Burlington Telecom (BT), the city-owned triple-play full fiber-to-the-home network in Vermont, recent developments between BT and the Mayor's office have been deeply disappointing. For those who haven't heard, BT is in the middle of a major controversy -- and it is hard to tell just what is going on (for background prior to current problems, read my Burlington Telecom Case Study and Fact Sheet).

I have wanted to comment on the situation for many weeks but have been waiting as each day seems offer another piece of the BT puzzle. I'll be offering more commentary about it in the future. However, I do not want to the let the current problems lend any credence to the idea that BT has failed. BT is caught in the middle of a political controversy around the Mayor but should continue providing the best telecom services available in the community.

BT has two main problems currently:

  1. It has not passed the entire city within the timeline to which it agreed in receiving its Certificate of Public Good (CPG)
  2. BT has, apparently, borrowed $17 million from the city's pool (used generally for short-term financing of projects) in contravention of its CPG which states that any money borrowed from the City must be paid back within 60 days.

    This CPG condition makes running a network more difficult for BT than it would for a company like Comcast - who can readily self-finance short-term borrowing. Across the U.S., communities have to deal with laws and regulations that benefit private companies over public networks.

    When the economy fell apart, BT was unable to refinance its debt to continue its expansion and chose to borrow from the City to continue connecting new customers. This was the right decision - the CPG did not anticipate such conditions and the terms for outside financing in late 2008 were wretched.

I say "apparently" borrowed above because it is far from clear if all of those funds actually went to BT. As Steve Ross explains here, it is not even clear if BT really required all that it borrowed from the City. Until the Mayor can produce a thorough explanation, I think it prudent to...

Read more
Posted September 30, 2009 by christopher

On the Daily Yonder - offering coverage of rural issues - Craig Settles offers advice to community networks on the need to attract institution and business customers because networks rarely generate enough revenue to make debt payments by focusing solely on residential subscribers.

When communities compare the costs of different technologies, they often get too caught up in the upfront costs and ignore the ongoing costs (operating costs, or opex). He offers an example of a modest wireless network:

It’s important to understand that while it costs a lot of money to create a broadband network, over a five-to-ten-year period, it costs even more to operate that network than to build it. Say it costs $1 million to build a wireless network. During the municipal wireless heyday, it was estimated to cost 20% of buildout expense to operate the network annually – to pay for customer service, maintenance, upgrades, etc. That’s $200,000 a year.

This is a great intro article for those who may not be used to thinking about the economics or business plans networks need.

For the rest of us, it is a strong reminder of how many networks start (and a good path for those who want to create a network):

Santa Monica, California, had a legacy PBX phone system and slow connection circuits from incumbents. The city pooled money it was already paying for voice and data services, using this capital to build a fiber network and implement new communication technology.

City CIO Jory Wolf states, “By switching to fiber we realized a $500,000 savings in data circuits and $250,000 savings in voice circuits, all of which stayed in our fund. Ongoing savings enabled us to provide our police with video streaming in their vehicles. We have excess bandwidth, so we provide (a) large number of sites with free wireless access.” Wolf said that the city is also selling companies fiber lines that haven't yet been turned on. “Our network budget is self-sustaining,” he said, “and I have $2.5 million in capital.”

I remember Tim Nulty saying that Burlington Telecom started the same way. They figured out how much they were paying each month for telecom as a city. They used that number to compute how much they could spend...

Read more
Posted June 24, 2009 by christopher

NATOA, the National Association of Telecommunications Officers and Advisors, comprises many people who are in, and work on, community broadband networks. Whether they are dealing with cable-company owned I-Nets or citizen owned networks, one of their jobs is to make sure the community has the network it needs.

Starting this year, NATOA has made its publication, the NATOA Journal, available to everyone, not just members. This will be a great resource for community broadband information.

This issue has important articles - from an in-depth comparison of the physical properties of copper and fiber to less technical arguments by Tim Nulty and myself. Tim Nulty wrote "Fiber to the User as a Public Utility."

He advances a number of important arguments:

  • Universal - everyone should have access at affordable rates
  • Open Access - it must encourage competition, not stifle it
  • Future Proof - the technology must be built to last and meet needs currently unforeseen
  • Financial self sufficiency - this can be done and the political culture suggests it must be done

He then delves into the problems Burlington Telecom faced, how it resolved those problems, and some of the strengths of their approach. He also offers some details on his new project - East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network.

My "Community Owned Networks Benefit Everyone" makes the case that only publicly owned networks can offer true competition in the broadband market because private network owners will not open their networks to other providers. Facilities-based competition is a policy that encourages monopoly or duopoly throughout most of America.

However, I also argue that public ownership, and the accountability that comes with it, may be more important than competition in cases where the community chooses that model. As always, we stand up for the right of communities to choose their future and to take responsibility for their choices.

Other important articles in this issue discuss the...

Read more

Pages

Subscribe to Burlington Telecom