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Burlington Residents Fight To Keep Their Internet Locally-Sourced

The Burlington Telecom building. The City of Burlington hopes to have a buyer for Burlington Telecom lined up by the fall. The City Council will vote to eliminate one of three bids from the sale process.
Taylor Dobbs
VPR File
Burlington Telecom Advisory Board solicited imput from the local residents Wednesday, as the city considers conditions for selling city-owned Burlington Telecom.

A group of Burlington residents is pushing the city to keep city-owned Burlington Telecom from being sold to a major national company.

At a meeting of the Burlington Telecom Advisory Board Wednesday, Burlington residents and some from outside the city spoke in favor of keeping the utility locally-owned, even if not by the city itself.

David Provost, the chair of the Burlington Telecom Advisory Board, said Wednesday that the board is taking the public input as it drafts a set of conditions for Burlington Telecom’s planned sale.

“We’re trying to get a sense from the community on where they stand on what’s important in what we’re looking for in a buyer or a partner,” Provost said. “So this process over the next month is about soliciting that input so that we can wade through it and come forth with meaningful recommendations on what that criteria should look like.”

The exact details vary, but members of the public at Wednesday’s meeting consistently called for the board to keep Burlington Telecom’s ownership local.

One of the conditions of a financing deal that got Burlington Telecom out of trouble with lenders is that the city government has to sell the utility.

Now, a group of residents is fighting to keep their high-speed Internet locally-sourced.

Heather Riemer stood in a circle with four or five other members of the public last week as they tried to figure out how to keep one of the nation's largest companies from taking total control of Burlington's broadband market.

“One thing obviously that would be bad for Burlington would be if there was a monopoly. If there was only one, you know if Comcast essentially was the only player in town.”

Right now that's not the case. City-owned Burlington Telecom provides fiber Internet to thousands of customers in Vermont's largest city.

Burlington Telecom has a checkered past that stems from officials improperly borrowing money from the city's general fund to cover financial losses.

A financing deal that went into effect January first resolved most of the financial issues that resulted, but the deal requires the city to sell BT.

Last week's hearing was one of a series of meetings the board is holding to get the public's advice on how to go about the sale.

"We're trying to get a sense from the community on where they stand on what's important in what we’re looking for in a buyer or a partner." - David Provost, chair of the Burlington Telecom Advisory Board

And Provost said the message Reimer and others were putting forth was one he expected.

“They believe that its continued success in the future – or to be more successful,” says Provost. “I heard that it's important for find some way to keep this local component of it.”

Reimer and about a dozen other advocates at the meeting were wearing stickers in support of keeping BT locally owned, but that's easier said than done.

Two of the hypothetical sale prices the advisory board is working with are $10.5 million and $23.5 million – not exactly a typical business transaction in Burlington.

That's forced people to bring some creative suggestions to the board.

“A cooperative model would allow it to be competitive,” Reimer says. “But still owned by its subscribers, local and locally-owned.”

A co-op has already formed and is accepting members. Any potential sale will be subject to conditions set by the city council with direction from the advisory board.

The latest effort by advocates for a locally-owned BT are an effort to make those conditions as friendly as possible to local buyers.

Provost says the board plans to send recommendations on the sale conditions to the city council by January.

Taylor was VPR's digital reporter from 2013 until 2017. After growing up in Vermont, he graduated with at BA in Journalism from Northeastern University in 2013.
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