Business & Economy

New details emerge about Burlington Telecom suitors

BURLINGTON — David Provost, chair of the Burlington Telecom Advisory Board, offered the public new morsels of information about the four finalists bidding to operate the Queen City’s municipal fiber network.

The revelation makes good on a promise from Mayor Miro Weinberger to provide further information about bids the city is still considering, but it’s unlikely to satisfy critics who say the sale process should be public.

The mayor has said he does not want to release the bids themselves until after the city has selected one, and Provost said officials are limited in what they can say publicly because of nondisclosure agreements.

Burlington is required to sell the municipally owned telecommunications company as part of a 2014 settlement with Citibank, the company’s main creditor. Burlington is expected to keep a greater portion of the proceeds if the sale can be completed by January.

Provost said some factors are consistent under all four proposals: No major staff changes are expected at Burlington Telecom; the city would have the option to retain a “significant ownership interest”; and the entity would continue to offer residents an alternative to other cable or broadband providers.

“There are differences in the proposals as well,” Provost said.

Two offers come from “mature financially stable” companies with experience operating fiber-to-the-home systems. Both are cash offers and would not require Burlington Telecom to take on any new debt. Both would continue to invest in expanding service, Provost said.

Another offer comes from a private equity investor with “valuable local relationships and extensive telecom experience.” That offer comes with a “vision for aggressive BT regional growth,” Provost said.

The final offer comes from Keep BT Local, a group proposing a cooperative member ownership model, which publicly identified itself early in the process. The group recently raised more than $250,000 through an online effort.

Provost initially delivered his remarks during a public comment period moments before the City Council voted to go into executive session to discuss the bids privately. He repeated the information during the City Council meeting, which drew a number of residents interested in the telecom’s future.

Residents and Burlington Telecom customers who spoke at Monday’s meeting were overwhelmingly in support of the co-op’s bid. They cited other successful local cooperatives and questioned whether the city could guarantee local ownership in the future if one of the other suitors were selected.

One person praised the “holistic value of member ownership,” while another said co-ops are an expression of love.

Alan Matson, chair of the Keep BT Local board, attended the meeting. He said he was pleased to hear there was “common ground” across the four final suitors.

Matson expressed concern that two of the bids were from traditional cable or broadband companies. He said industry trends toward consolidation may mean those companies could be bought by a cable giant — a result that residents say they deeply oppose.

Provost had previously assured the City Council that none of the 10 largest telecom companies in the United States was among the eight companies to submit proposals. Provost did say Monday that all four bids ensure long-term competition for cable and broadband service, but he didn’t say how.

Matson said he was curious but not surprised about the offer from a private equity investor with strong local ties. Keep BTV Local sought to gauge interest from local private equity investors and firms, garnering little interest.

He said he would be keen to learn whether the private equity offer comes from someone who passed up the co-op.

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