BURLINGTON -- After years of waiting and months of agonizing 11th-hour delays, Burlington Telecom has arrived. The city's ground-breaking municipal telecommunications department will hold a grand opening at City Hall on May 25 from 4-6 p.m. B.T. representatives will be on hand to answer questions and sign people up for the city's newest utility -- "triple-play" phone, cable TV and broadband Internet service.
Richard Donnelly, B.T. director of sales and marketing, says that 350 homes have already been connected, and the department is now ready and eager to add more. But only in the South End -- if you live outside of B.T.'s initial service area, you may have to wait a few more months for the wires to reach you. B.T. says they'll connect the entire city by the end of 2007. A detailed map of their rollout plans can be found at www.burlingtontele com.net.
Waiting has been the name of the game since B.T.'s inception. Fed up with the rising cost of Adelphia's cable TV service, voters first authorized the city to create a municipally owned fiber-to-the-home network in 1997. But getting it up and running took longer than expected.
Adelphia was one obstacle -- the cable company, which is now being sold to Comcast Corp., tried unsuccessfully last year to block B.T.'s Certificate of Public Good. After a public forum sponsored by the Public Service Board last March, Lisa Birmingham, Adelphia's director of Government Affairs, warned that the city was biting off more than it could chew by trying to provide cable. "This is a difficult business," she told Seven Days. "This is not like turning on the power."
Her warning proved prescient. B.T. should have launched in January, Donnelly says, but it ended up doing some last-minute wrangling with cable TV stations.
Unlike traditional cable companies, which deliver content via coaxial cables, B.T. is delivering channels via fiber cables, which have a much higher carrying capacity. But that technological distinction spoiled B.T.'s attempt to purchase channels through a cooperative, and B.T. ended up having to work out contracts with individual channels and media groups such as Viacom.
Donnelly says that some companies used the opportunity to try to force B.T. to accept changes to its channel lineup. MTV, for example, wanted all 23 of its channels in B.T.'s standard service. But Donnelly had already marketed some of those channels in its premium package. "It would have blown apart our original model," he complains.
With the help of a consultant, B.T. was able to work out a deal with most of its content providers, partly by purchasing expensive encrypting devices to prevent users from illegally downloading digital content onto their computers. But it's still negotiating with the Rainbow Media Group, which owns American Movie Classics. And it will take a while to add RETN, Channel 16, which broadcasts local school board meetings; B.T. has to physically run a cable to the studio in Colchester.
B.T. users will also be disappointed to learn that the network won't support their TiVos. Donnelly says B.T.'s own digital recorders are superior to TiVo, but they're not available yet. However, B.T.'s service is complete for the most part, Donnelly notes.
Brian Gamelin says he's happy with it. The St. Paul Street resident saw a flier for B.T. and signed up this winter. He uses it for his phone and his cable TV service. He estimates that he's saving $40 to $50 a month over what he used to pay to Adelphia and Verizon. Asked why he switched, he says simply, "Cheaper prices, better people."
Mary Ann Samuels of Locust Terrace is another satisfied customer. She switched her household to B.T. phone, broadband and cable TV in March because she wanted to use a local service. Samuels says the month before she switched, her Adelphia cable rate nearly doubled.
Samuels has gotten two bills from B.T. since signing up, but says it's hard to tell if she's saving much, since she upgraded from a dial-up connection to broadband. Still, she says, "It seems like it's cheaper." Would she would recommend B.T. to others? "Yes," Samuels answers. "Definitely."