In just a few weeks, Burlingtonians will learn the fate of their public telecom utility – Burlington Telecom (BT) – when the City Council makes a final decision on who will be the next owner of BT.
There appears to be a lot of insider and consultant pressure on the City Council to privatize Burlington Telecom. In public sessions, a number of “advisors” to the City Council have been dismissive of the coop’s financing plan, it’s cooperative structure, and other red herrings.
A final decision will be made by on Oct. 16, with the current four finalists winnowed down to two on Oct. 2. The names of all bidders will be released this week.
Clearly, the public in support of the Keep BT Local Cooperative’s bid to keep our public utility in the hands of the community.
In less than three weeks, nearly 600 people have signed an online petition urging the Council to work with KBTL to ensure that BT remains in local hands. Another 200-plus people have signed printed petitions asking the same. Consider signing this petition if you haven’t yet.
In addition, KBTL has raised nearly $450,000 in pledges via Milk Money Vermont. These pledges are from Vermonters who believe in the coop’s vision to buy BT and expand it beyond the Queen City.
Why is fully privatizing Burlington Telecom a bad idea? Here’s three reasons:
Reason 1. Burlington wants a local telecom. The Keep BT Local cooperative is the only bidder that is structured to carry out the original vision of BT – a telecom by and for the people of Burlington.
No other bid truly complies with the City’s criterion for local control. In both surveys and comments before the Burlington Telecom Advisory Board, Burlingtonians were EXPRESSLY CLEAR that local ownership was their Number 1 priority. Not concern about interest rates on loans, but LOCAL OWNERSHIP.
A cooperative offers both local ownership, and a governance structure that is responsive to its members – the BT subscribers themselves.
Reason 2. Privatizing BT will eventually lead Burlington to becoming beholden, again, to Comcast.
Any private investment has an exit strategy in order to make money* on one’s investment, and that almost always means selling out to a bigger company, and this is especially true in the private telecom marker. No private bidder can guarantee that privatizing BT is anything more than a temporary stopping point on the way to Comcast.
Comcast. That’s right – the company now suing the State of Vermont because it doesn’t want to live up to its obligations under state law. Is that what we want to become of BT?
Let’s be clear: BT was and is Burlington’s “exit strategy” from an extractive telecom market that did not, and does not, care about investing in our community, only taking from it.
Reason 3: We, the city of Burlington, should be profiting off of BT’s success.
Any other bid is for the purpose of sucking money out of Burlington, while the coop is designed to keep our money here.
Any difference in payout now is a pittance compared to the long-term perpetual payout that the coop offers – to our taxpayers by way of lower costs to our city and schools, to dividends for our member-owners.
Finally, cheerleaders and “experts” for the private telecom industry fought BT every step of the way: it’s creation, it’s source of funding, the services it could offer, and we were told that it could never be profitable and would only be reliant on taxpayer dollars. BT will post a net profit of $3 million this year. Hmm.
These same cheerleaders and “experts” now want us to believe only by privatizing BT (and handing over those healthy profits to them) can we ensure its future. Double hmm.
How about this: We proved these so-called experts wrong once about BT, so let’s prove them wrong again.
Let’s Keep BT Local.
Full disclosure: I am a member of the Coop and at one point served on its board of directors.
* Let’s be clear that this mythical return on an investment that is glorified by the private market will be derived from our tax dollars through money paid to BT’s owners by the city and schools, as well as the rates that individual Burlington businesses and residents will pay. That money will simply be siphoned off to make money at the close of a sale, we won’t see any return on that investment – only the new owner will. That would not be the case in a cooperative.