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Burlington's Civic Cloud Collaborative Wins Knight Foundation Award

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has awarded a Knight Prototype Fund grant to the Civic Cloud Collaborative of Burlington, Vermont.

The Civic Cloud Collaborative is a group of eight organizations using Burlington's gigabit network to create civic and public spaces. The group describes the Civic Cloud project on their website:

The Civic Cloud will be available for the community to use as a platform for public, non-commercial Internet applications and digital creative works. Several applications will be deployed during an initial prototyping phase of the Civic Cloud. High-definition live streaming will be provided for community media outlets to webcast live public meetings and cultural events. WordPress websites will be hosted for several Vermont non-profits including rescue squads, food shelves, job banks and historical societies. A collection of volunteer-developed applications and a state-of-the-art website deployed to the Civic Cloud will help Big Heavy World preserve and promote Vermont-made music. Lakecraft, an educational, multi-user game aimed at youth and adults that gamifies the Lake Champlain Basin, will also be one of the first applications to run on the Civic Cloud.

Vermont Public Radio also reported on the award. From the article:

“We’re interested in it being a non-commercial space on the Internet,” said Bradley Holt, a Burlington-based developer who heads CodeForBTV, the local chapter of Code For America, an organization for public service software developers.

The cloud service, Holt said, will provide hosting capacity for local community organizations seeking to use the Internet to advance the public interest.

For more, check out the press release from Code for BTV, one of the collaborative members.

Burlington's Next Step: Become a Gigabit Community

Burlington has seen ups and downs over the past few years but a new chapter is about to begin. The non-profit U.S. Ignite and the City are partnering to create BTV Ignite. The initiative will develop a gigabit community infrastructure and the applications that use it. With help from U.S. Ignite, Burlington will join the growing list of gigabit communities.

An advisory committee is fueling interest in the project. Mayor Miro Weinberger describes the effort as a way to develop a tech friendly local economy and increase access for individuals and institutions. A recent Government Technology article quoted the Mayor:

“We believe we’re well on our way to being the first city in the country that provides gigabit access to every student from kindergarten through college and even graduate school here in Burlington,” Weinberger said. 

The City and its partner have developed five critical steps based on consultation with Kansas City, Chattanooga, and other gigabit communities:

1.    Develop Structure to Foster Applications-Driven Energy

Much like the KC Digital Drive in Kansas City, [Executive Director of U.S. Ignite Bill] Wallace said the mayor’s advisory committee must play a key role in helping drive development.

2.    Create the Most Robust Infrastructure

Wallace said this will be particularly necessary for schools, businesses and libraries.

3.    Embrace Technology Through Community Events and Hackathons

By setting up a continuous stream of events like community hackathons, digital sandboxes and a hacker homes network similar to one developed in Kansas City, the city will be able to focus more on app development for specific capabilities, like cybersecurity or the development of complex systems.

4.    Share Practices With Other Cities to Deploy Networks

This could also mean sharing practices on how to generate applications.

5.    Tap into Federal Resources

Wallace said looking to federally funded resources like the National Science Foundation will be important when building out the infrastructure and developing applications.

Burlington hopes to secure a Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) rack for its University of Vermont campus. The rack would come from the National Science Foundation and would allow UVM access to researchers at over 40 other universities.

The initiative also aims to create 60 next-generation applications and 200 "community test beds" where the new applications can be developed and eventually deployed.

At an October 15th event to announce the partnership, Wallace and Mayor Weinberger address the ongoing lawsuit between community owned Burlington Telecom and Citibank. The Burlington Free Press covered the event:

“We were aware of that, but basically the capability is there, and that makes Burlington a logical and very attractive candidate to become part of US Ignite,” Wallace said.

“There is some uncertainty about where the dispute with Citibank, CitiCapital is going, but we think it’s time to move forward with this conversation,” Weinberger added. “We think the high likelihood is that these resources are going to exist in this community for a long time to come.”

Video: Burlington Telecom Coop Effort Moving Ahead

In December, 2012, a group of local residents decided to engage in an effort to turn beleaguered Burlington Telecom into a coop. The effort has advanced and the organization, Keep BT Local, continues to gain pledges. To date, the organization has collected pledges in the amount of $108,000 for equity and $156,000 in loan pledges.

Keep BT Local is ultimately shooting for membership pledges from about 4,000 residential and business customers. The goal has been to collect $250,000 worth of pledges to move forward with incorporation this month.

Local Chanel 17 carried a discussion on the effort to get more info on the business plan. Alan Matson and Don Schramm, who head up the Steering Committee talked with host, Matt Kelly, about the venture and took calls from viewers.

In addition to a discussion about the the heart of what is "local," the group discussed the business plan and where challenges may arise.

The discussion is about 30 minutes long.

Coop Status for Burlington Telecom? Maybe.....

Burlington Telecom may be headed for some changes. Due to the mismanagement of the prior Burlington Mayor Administration, the network took on an unsustainable amount of debt and damaged its reputation. Some of the plans to make the network sustainable again involve privatizing it. Unfortunately, as we have seen with public power privatizations, such an action typically results in worse services and higher prices due to the loss of local control.

Operating under the name Keep Our Telecom Local, a group of local residents and business leaders want to ensure BT remains owned by the community by turning it into a cooperative. At a December 13 public meeting, the group of about 50 volunteers gathered and talked strategy. According to a Burlington Free Press article on the meeting, attendees broke into smaller groups to discuss specific issues and plans.

The next step will be efforts to increase publicity for the movement and the creation of a business plan. Currently, a committee is forming to determine the best way to file for a Vermont Certificate of Public Good. Another committee is looking into formation of a board of directors.

Most municipal networks do not have to contend with the problems that have plagued Burlington Telecom. But even with all of the problems faced by this publicly owned network, the community still sees great value in rescuing it rather than abandoning it. The Burlington community appreciates the incredible value of keeping their broadband resource local. From the article:

Don Schramm, one of the organizers of tentatively named Green Mountain Broadband Fiber, said it makes sense to pursue a Third Way.

“Keeping our telecom locally owned means that the jobs stay here, the money spent stays here, the profit stays here — and most importantly, the control stays here,” Schramm said. “We will have a broadband cooperative responsible to our community needs, not the profit wants of out-of-state owners.”

We applaud the community for recognizing the value of this great asset, the importance of local control, and their efforts to keep BT local.

Burlington Telecom Announces a Gig and Computer Repair Services

We have covered happenings at Burlington Telecom, both positive and negative, extensively. We are glad to report some interesting new developments of this Vermont municipal network. BT is rolling out faster connections and using its competitive advantage in customer service to offer some computer repair services. Joel Banner Baird at the Burlington Free Press reported:

Without cash reserves and promotional enticements available to BT’s commercial competitors, the fiber-optic Internet/phone/cable provider will focus on its strength in customer service, said interim General Manager Stephen Barraclough.

As our readers know, BT is in the midst of a pending lawsuit with Citibank, wherein the financial giant says the city still owes it $33.5 million. The network's troubles, including misuse of public funds by the previous Mayor, have hurt its ability to generate income and Burlington's credit rating has suffered.

While fixing PCs certainly won't pay mounting legal fees, it will make life easier for customers. Details include a $25 diagnostic fee and a rate of $45 per hour plus materials. More about the service is available on the PDF of the official anouncement.

A more recent announcement puts Burlington among the few communities with citywide access to a gig. Burlington Telecom is in the midst of upgrades and will be offering 1 Gbps service and 40 Mbps service starting on December 1, 2012. Both options are symmetrical.

40 Mbps - $99.99 per month

1 Gbps - $149.99 per month when committing for one year; or $199.99 per month with a month-to-month arrangement

burlington-gig-sheet.PNG

View a PDF of the official announcement flyer.

A gig for $150 to residential connections is one of the best deals we have seen in the nation and is far superior to what FairPoint DSL or Comcast Cable offer in town.

Citibank Finally Files Suit Against Burlington Telecom

After more than a year of expecting Citibank to file suit against Burlington, they finally did. Burlington Telecom, a muni FTTH network, now illustrates the worst case scenario for muni broadband. After the founder of the network left following disagreements with the Mayor, the Mayor's Administration ran the network into the ground (leading us to recently publish the report "Learning from Burlington Telecom: Some Lessons for Community Networks."

Burlington had financed its network with a municipal capital lease, rather than the more commonly used revenue bonds, meaning that the actual network secures the loan. In this arrangement, the network is technically owned by the lender (Citi) and Burlington leased it. So when Burlington decided to stop paying the lease for the network, it became Citi's problem.

And Citi had a lot of problems due to the games massive banks were playing having killed the economy. BT became just one more non-performing asset. They did nothing while the City continued to run the network without making lease payments. Now Citi is suing for the world (this is how these things work) but it isn't clear that Citi can actually get what it demands (the State has a say in whether the network simply gets shut down, which Citi is presently asking for). And if the network did get shut down, Citi would be in a worse position to recover any of its losses because the value of the network is far greater than the sum of its parts.

State law says that losses from a public telecom venture cannot be carried by taxpayers, which is where we return to an interesting document prepared by the Mayor's Administration. As reported by Blurt:

In its lawsuit, Citibank notes that a letter written by attorney Joe McNeil on behalf of Burlington "expressly warranted to Citibank that at least 40 percent of Burlington's revenues were derived from sources other than taxpayers' funds and would be available to fund payments to Citibank, and further, that Burlington had the financial resources and ability to make all payments to Citibank for the full term of the agreement."

I read that document last year and remember being fairly surprised as it appeared to be incorrect from my non-lawyer reading of the law. This is just another case in which the Mayor's Administration played too fast and loose with essential infrastructure.

We have watched in dismay as Burlington Telecom transitioned over the past four years from a model community network to the worst case scenario. This situation proves only that community networks can suffer from bad management in some of the many ways private telecom companies can suffer from bad management (resulting in anything from bankruptcy to prison).

Communities can learn lessons from Burlington's situation -- chief among them that transparency is important. As with other public enterprise funds, the operation should be regularly audited and oversight must be in place to catch errors early, when corrections are easier and less costly.

Unfortunately, Burlington Telecom is in a very bad position presently. The actions of the Mayor's Administration made that position worse than it could have been. Time will tell if it can be saved. Given its important positive contributions to the city (millions of dollars in community savings, increased economic development), the City would benefit from its continued operation.

Learning from Burlington Telecom: Some Lessons for Community Networks

Publication Date: 
August 18, 2011
Author(s): 
Christopher Mitchell - Institute for Local Self-Reliance

In little more than a year, Burlington Telecom went from being a hopeful star of the community fiber network movement to an albatross around its neck. The controversies surrounding it have encouraged cable and telephone companies to use it as Exhibit A in their case against communities going into the telecommunications business. However, most of those criticizing Burlington Telecom have very little understanding of what went wrong and how it happened. Examining what actually happened helps to explain how these problems may be avoided, as the vast majority of existing community networks have already done.

[Download the full report]

In 2007, ILSR issued a case study on Burlington Telecom. The report argued that Burlington Telecom was a model for how communities could build their own next‐generation fiber‐to-the‐home broadband networks.

This report revisits and updates that report, analyzes Burlington Telecom’s situation (for better and for worse), and extracts useful lessons for other communities pursuing community fiber networks.

In preparation for this report, ILSR examined many documents, including those available due to the investigation of Vermont’s Department of Public Service. We interviewed many people from Burlington, including former BT employees, citizens active around the project, and City Council members. We discussed Burlington’s situation with a number of others intimately involved in community broadband networks around the country and posed questions directly to a representative of BT.

Gary Evans of HBC Discusses Burlington Telecom Situation

In a bimonthly local show, Burlington City Councilmember Karen Paul discusses City issues. In the recent show, she discussed Burlington Telecom with Gary Evans, the head of Hiawatha Broadband Communications (HBC). Evans has been helping BT get back on its feet after struggling for years. HBC is a private company most notable for strong success in overbuilding cable companies in SE Minnesota as well as running the Monticello FiberNet for the City.

For those who need an update on what is happening to BT since its problems were widely publicized, this is a great place to start.

The Burlington Telecom Mess in Perspective: a Letter to the Community

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 to build the system – the fiber optic lines, the home installations, the controlling equipment – based on a guess of what the revenues would be many years down the road. There's a basic uncertainty in infrastructure construction, then, and the constantly changing world of high tech compounds the problem. There are better and worse guesses, but speaking as though revenue and cost estimates for 2010 could have been made with absolute certainty in 2005 is asking for the impossible.

Some accuse BT's first manager Tim Nulty of having been a charismatic pied piper who presented overly rosy revenue projections, but the same could be said for Steve Jobs – for all his successes like the iPhone he's got a long string of failures to his name as well – and he is one of the most admired business managers in the world. It takes a mixture of vision, charisma, and judgment to get any big project like this off the ground, and hindsight will always be able to find some errors in the early stages of a project. The debates between Nulty and the Kiss administration that led to Nulty's resignation – Kiss and Leopold wanted to move cautiously and work towards making the existing system self-sustaining, Nulty wanted to invest more in marketing and building out in order to grow the subscriber base – should be seen in the first instance as different judgments between reasonable people about how to deal with a fundamentally uncertain situation. Maybe if you look at it carefully you might conclude that one side has been more right than the other, but if you think it's black-and-white, if you think the answer is obvious, you don't understand the issue.

The inevitable uncertainty that comes with high tech projects means that the history of communication systems is strewn with expensive mistakes much worse than BT's. Back in about 2005 when BT was getting its start, many cities (e.g., Philadelphia, Chicago) were guessing that city-wide Wi-Fi systems were the way to go, and have since had to scale back or abandon their efforts. Mobile phone companies at the time were investing huge sums on the theory that consumers would pay handsomely to watch short video clips of news and sports events on tiny phone screens (this was before the iPhone and YouTube sent consumers straight to the internet to get such things for free). More recently, global TV set manufacturers seem to have made a bad bet on the hope that everyone would pay for expensive 3D television sets. Expensive bad guesses come with the territory.

BT Logo

Which is why it needs be said that, five years down the road, BT remains a pretty good idea. It has not met its original targets for profitability – given the economic climate, the same is true for almost the entire industry – but Burlington now has a durable, highly flexible state-of-the-art fiber-to-the-home system that can deliver both existing services and be easily adopted to future trends. It's quite valuable; it provides services that people want now and will want and pay for in the future, and makes Burlington more inviting to citizens and businesses. Like everyone else, BT did fail to anticipate the financial downturn, which in turn caused subscribers to scale back on extra services like premium cable channels (throughout the industry, the best source of revenues). And it ran into technical difficulties installing cables in certain neighborhoods and a few other hiccups. In the larger scheme of things, these are problems, but not signs of gross negligence. When the City of Burlington set out to build BT, we can now say it made a reasonably good bet.

So what's the problem now? The tragedy of BT is not that it was a bad idea to begin with or that one could have foreseen all of the difficulties it now faces. Rather, the current mess is a product of a perfect storm of a difficult financial landscape with a fatal political misjudgment. Publicly run utilities often work well; Burlington Electric is by some measures the best run electric provider in the State. But, because they are publicly owned, they come with a higher expectation of transparency and public understanding. The Kiss administration seems to have forgotten that. "Trust us" may work in the private sector, but for a public enterprise, even a supposedly self-sustaining one, that's not enough. When the Kiss administration was looking for ways to deal with BT's financial shortfalls, whether or not what they did was illegal, they should have gone fully public. They should have seen it as their job, not just to solve the problem, but to build public understanding and support for a solution that was both financially and politically acceptable. If journalists or skeptical City Council members did not understand, the overwhelming concern should have been turning that understanding around immediately. "It's easier to beg forgiveness than to ask for permission" does not apply to publicly owned enterprises. True, the Burlington Free Press has a long history of attacking Progressive politicians, so the Freep should not be mistaken for the public at large. But that is no excuse for ignoring a broad sense of public concern. Kiss's approach, which has boiled down to inarticulate claims of innocence with very little effort to effectively communicate both the nature of the problems and the solutions, has created a vacuum of public understanding which has been filled with politicized maneuvering, recriminations, and overheated "gotcha" journalistic coverage.

Politicians and the press should be focusing now on efforts to find practical ways to maintain Burlington Telecom in some form. Investigations should go forward with an eye towards solving the problem, not just finding guilty parties to blame. The financial complexities of BTs relationship to banks and the City need to be scrutinized with an eye towards getting things back on a sound footing while taking into account the inevitable uncertainties and long-term nature of this kind of project; patience will be required for any solution to work. But the lesson learned is that both financial solvency and public legitimacy have to be part of the solution; in fact, each requires the other. And for public legitimacy to be restored, at this point it is clear that new management needs to be brought in, regardless of what one thinks of past management.

But the Kiss administration, and the Progressive community in general, need to face up to the fact that the whole thing has been handled in a politically disastrous way. I helped campaign for Bob Kiss in his first run for mayor, and it saddens me deeply that this mess has delivered a serious blow to the Progressive moment in Burlington, damaging three decades of carefully built trust and good will, nearly guaranteeing that Progressives will have a much harder time getting elected in the foreseeable future. The Progressive movement is founded on a belief in democratic involvement in decisions that affect us all; by loosing sight of the role of leadership in generating and adopting to the public understanding necessary for that involvement, the Mayor's office has shot itself in the foot, and caused us all some pain.

Tom Streeter

A Solution to Burlington Telecom’s Woes: Subscribe!

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 fearful about abruptly losing your BT service, then I’d wager you would NOT choose to punish your neighbors. But that’s exactly who will be harmed if the only option we think is open to us to focus our wrath upon the Mayor, the CAO or the City Council. What BT needs right now is revenue, not vitriol.

I challenge those Burlington residents, apartment building owners and landlords who are currently not BT subscribers to subscribe to BT tomorrow. I challenge Fletcher Allen’s Board Chair Roger Stone and President and CEO Melinda Estes to figure out how FAHC could avail itself of one or more of BT’s services. And I extend the same challenge to UVM’s Board of Trustees, President Mark Fogel and Provost Jane Knodell.

Unlike a number of other anchor institutions in our community, including Champlain College, Dealer.Com and others, FAHC and UVM have proved impenetrable to BT’s sales efforts thus far, in spite of the fact that they and other institutions collectively spend easily a million dollars each year for their cable television, telephone and internet services. Yes, residential subscriptions are important to the viability of BT, but as anyone in wholesale and retail business knows, it’s the commercial and institutional clients that can make or break an enterprise. I don’t want to ‘pick on’ FAHC or UVM—there are a number of sticky technical matters that they and BT would have to work out—but I feel that a city’s largest institutions have a responsibility commensurate with their size to “buy local,” particularly when the quality is top rank and the cost of the service is competitive.

Our city enjoys a world-class telecommunications network—the envy of many communities around the United States—with competitive rates and a staff eager to work with any potential and existing customer to meet their needs, no matter how advanced or complex. Its customer service and technical service is also first-rate, and so should there be any impediment to subscribing?

Perhaps there is. I believe the fundamental reason that BT’s subscriber count has remained so low is that there has been a critical absence of “ownership mentality” among our residents, institutions and businesses. Why is this important? Because after the early adopters and enthusiastic supporters subscribed, too few of the remaining homeowners, landlords, businesses and institutions felt they had any financial stake in the future of the BT enterprise.

But why don’t Burlingtonians feel they have a financial stake in BT if BT is a municipally-owned system? Few Burlingtonians have thought about this, but BT is actually not a municipally-owned telecom system, nor has it ever been. The fact is that State law all but made it illegal and impossible for BT to be truly a municipally-owned system by limiting the City’s access to public financing and its ability to use City resources to market BT.

The Northeast Cable Television Association (NECTA), working through in-state instrumentalities such as Adelphia, convinced our lawmakers and regulators that limiting public financing not only minimized risk to taxpayers, but also that it would be counter to free enterprise if the State were to allow our City to compete head-to-head with them unless encumbered with legislative language that limited City elected leaders and departmental staff in what they could say and how much time they could spend “selling” the system to their fellow residents. Although the Vermont legislature bravely upheld the basic principle of municipal ownership of a telecommunication system, the Public Service Board nevertheless had to impose legislatively-based conditions on the City that severely handicapped the operation from being a true municipally-owned network.

Think of it: normally when a city wants to develop a municipal project that benefits its citizenry but has very significant up-front construction costs, it passes a bond measure. The voting taxpayers approve the bond, and then pay back the loan over time. The voters in this way demonstrate their good faith in the enterprise, become financial stakeholders with a vested interest in promoting its success, and commit to overseeing the operation. In hindsight, there’s no way to know whether or not a bond measure of the magnitude required to build BT’s network would have passed, but with the State law in place there was no way even to try.

At the end of the day, without taxpayers’ ownership interest in BT, the only truly vested stakeholder would be the financial lender—an out-of-town bank.

Imagine if the State of Vermont dictated to private cable operators like Comcast that they couldn’t use shareholders’ money to raise capital to build and own their systems, but instead they had to enter into a lease-purchase contract with an outside bank which would actually own the system until the loan was paid off in 20 years. Only then would the company and its shareholders own the system. Plus, during those 20 years the company president, CEO and the company’s other divisions would be prohibited from actively promoting the company’s services. Pretty crazy scenario, right? Yes, but these terms are basically the same ones to which the City of Burlington had to agree under state law.

Under these conditions, which the cable industry characterized as “leveling the playing field,” Burlington Telecom was operating from day one under the playing field with its competitors, not on a level one. At the same time that Burlington’s taxpayers were being protected from risk, they were also being denied any direct and palpable link between their subscription dollars and BT’s financial success. Without a sustaining sense of responsible ownership, subscriptions prematurely plateaued, and what made matters worse was inadequate marketing, spiritless mayoral leadership and, for some embarrassing reasons, an inability to bring the system underground to the core downtown and wealthier parts of the city.

So what can the average citizen do right now, at a time when our state’s regulatory agency, our state’s attorney, a criminal court and the FBI are involved in our financial mess? The only thing that we Burlington residents, businesses and institutions can do is put behind us any debilitating animosity, anger or fear we may harbor, and pursue the only positive alternative that we still have within our power to extract ourselves from this dilemma: subscribe to one or more of BT’s services.

If the residential, commercial and institutional subscribership of BT were increased by 20% over the next year—that amounts to fewer than 1,000 new sign-ups, contracts or pledges to leave competitor’s contracts—the enterprise will be in a vastly superior financial position that would, in turn, improve our ability to minimize its negative impacts on City revenues, maintain some local control over its management, and facilitate a smoother and earlier transition into profitability. The City is at a critical stage in its negotiations, assisted by its financial advisory firm Dorman and Fawcett. If it can show evidence of an increase in BT’s subscribership and revenues within a more positive public climate, the City will gain considerable advantage in its bargaining position at the table.

Building a telecommunications system is an enormously costly undertaking and a 20-year pay-back period is not unreasonable, in spite of the rosy promise of premature profitability made by BT’s early promoters. We cannot reverse past mistakes, and if we dwell on them without doing something positive right now, we’re only hurting ourselves. The network may yet be saved and become the profitable asset that we all dreamed it could be.

Because of my fairly well-known history as chairman of two BT citizens’ advisory committees, I’ve been asked recently by several folks my opinion about the City’s situation with BT. I have been astounded at the number of times that a BT subscriber has told me that he or she would be willing to pay more for their BT service so the network could remain under local control and otherwise kept out of jeopardy. I have not solicited these comments—they’ve been mostly volunteered to me, un-prompted. This was something I never expected to hear amidst this heated climate, and I felt heartened that perhaps my call to subscribe to BT might not fall on deaf ears after all.

The City and Dorman and Fawcett are doggedly pursuing a deal that we hope will result in a more professional management of BT while maintaining some degree of local control and revenue. Meanwhile, we citizens should not feel out of the loop and powerless. There is something positive we can do right now. Subscribe. And from what I can see, there are many of us who are ready and willing to do exactly that. Think of it not as giving a hand out, but lending a hand up to this wounded critter, BT, so it can live another day to serve us well, and far into the future.

Greg EplerWood, Burlington, January 12, 2011