The city of Burlington, Vermont is providing communication services for its residents over a new, advanced municipal fiber optic network. Burlington is a city of about 40,000 persons. The city department that builds the network, operates it, and sells communications services is called Burlington Telecom (BT). BT had been designed and operated to be self-sufficient. BT receives no city budget or special tax revenue.
BT has been much more successful than other new communications services providers. Construction of BT’s fiber network began in 2005. BT provides wholesale services on an open access basis to other communications service providers, and it provides telephone, cable television, and broadband Internet services to retail customers. BT signed up its first customer in 2006, went cash-flow positive for operations in 2007, and is projected to cover its debt and be profitable about 2009. The network is intended to offer long-term, advanced communications services to every resident, business, and institution in the city. By the end of 2008, the network will be sufficiently extensive to do that.
One important factor in BT’s success has been the expertise and leadership of Tim Nulty. After an impressive career working for the United Auto Workers, the U.S. government, the World Bank, and a private capital fund addressing telecom start-ups in Central and Eastern Europe, Nulty came out of retirement to provide key direction for the Burlington project. Unfortunately there’s only one Tim Nulty. But other cities have good leaders, and they can learn from what Nulty has done.
Nulty emphasized a “build the barn you can afford” approach to building BT’s network. BT first built a network for Burlington city government organizations, which served as anchor tenants. The network was then extended to selected large businesses. Subsequently it was expanded to serve residential customers.
BT benefited from relatively low cost of capital. Koch Financial Corp., an organization of private investors, provided $20 million dollars for the project at 5.17% interest. The physical network itself, rather than municipal guarantees, provides the backing for the loan. However, as municipal finance, the interest is tax-exempt. Tax-exempt municipal bond financing provides capital much more cheaply than private equity finance.
A factor less widely understood is that providing retail services has been critical to making BT financially sustainable. BT’s retail services include differently priced bundles of telephone, Internet, and cable services similar to what commercial service providers offer. Since BT offers wholesale services on an open access basis, commercial services providers could out-compete BT at the retail level and confine it to wholesale service provision. Given that city departments typically do not excel in complex, competitive retail services, that probably would be a desirable long-term outcome.
However, beginning a municipal network with retail services makes good financial sense. Establishing a municipal network necessarily requires mobilizing the population to support it. Commercial service providers, in contrast, need to make huge expenditures on advertising and marketing to gain popular recognition and to attract customers. Moreover, pre-established popular support for a municipal network makes customer uptake relatively predictable and scalable. BT has had a take rate of about 30% of houses passed. At the recent Freedom to Connect conference, Nulty emphasized that not allowing a municipal network to provide retail services is a sure way to kill it.
Update: See also the East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network.
Update 2: Burlington Free Press article on Burlington Telecom. Tim Nulty’s response. More on the Vermont E-State and the East Central Vermont Community Fiber Network clash with the Vermont Telecom Authority. Summary: technology is easy compared to the interaction of human egos.
 This was for Phase 3 and 4 of the project. A $2.6 million loan for the initial phases was at 5.63%. See p. 3. of Christopher Mitchell, Burlington Telecom Case Study.