More than two years after it was convened to help guide the city-owned cable operation, an advisory group for Burlington Telecom is still struggling to understand its role, according to the annual report it recently submitted to the Burlington City Council.
In the report, the Burlington Telecommunications Advisory Committee expresses frustration with BT's tendency to "hold back" detailed information about its operations since the departure of former general manager Tim Nulty late last year.
Authored by BTAC chairman Greg Epler-Wood, and covering a 12-month period that ended April 30, the report said the lack of "yardstick" data from BT has made it necessary for committee members to "redefine our roles and responsibilities." It states that concerns about the committee's relationship with BT "have grown through the year" in three key areas:
- BT has not tapped the "professional resources" of the committee's members;
- BT has failed to capitalize on "its uniqueness and potential" to leverage residents' enthusiasm and "pride of ownership";
- The widespread positive attention BT had earned for its "uniqueness and potential . . . has all but disappeared."
Part of the problem has been negative media coverage of BT's financial situation and, more recently, the dustup over whether to remove Al Jazeera English from the program schedule. But the committee's concerns predate those controversies, according to Burlington City Councilor Andy Montroll (D-Ward 6), who chairs the Transportation and Energy Committee that acts as the council's liaison to BT.
"There has been frustration for a while now," Montroll said. Noting that BT competes with a host of privately owned telecommunications companies, including Comcast and Fairpoint, Epler-Wood said the group is not concerned with detailed financial matters, which, if divulged, could put the cable system at a competitive disadvantage.
But, he added, committee members are anxious to use their professional expertise to help "market and brand" BT and to take advantage of the "extraordinary potential" of the system.
The Burlington City Council authorized the BTAC in October 2004 in order to "include a measure of citizen input and oversight" in systems development. BTAC's seven members represent a range of community interests, from information technology to citizen journalism.
"We are willing and able to use our skills to the extent that we can to shift attention back to where it should be - the success and potential of BT, and the advantages of a municipally owned, state-of-the-art cable system," said Epler-Wood, a telecommunications consultant who has chaired the BTAC since 2006.
Chris Burns, BT's general manager, said he views the BTAC as what it is, an advisory committee, "not a commission," and that its role should be limited accordingly.
"They should be giving us feedback from the community, giving us a reflection of what they feel the residents want for services and how we're doing," he said. "They're citizens off the street, essentially, appointed by the city council. I think that's some of the challenge and the confusion."
Epler-Wood, however, clearly envisions BTAC as something more than a vehicle for subscribers' views. The committee's report said BTAC was "enthusiastically looking forward" to helping BT expand its model to other Vermont towns, only to be told those efforts were being scaled back because of BT's financial situation.
"We're not saying that's a bad position," Epler-Wood said. "But there hasn't been any real evidence that they are keeping that dream alive since we were told they were pulling back."
Burns explained that BT is still relatively new, and that the department has been focused on building up its hardware and business operations. "We still talking to towns, but it's not a revolving door like it was a few years ago," he said. "The thought was that we would better define those processes so we could support expansion more effectively."
The Burlington City Council was supposed to take up the report at its Monday meeting, but discussion was tabled until next week to allow councilors to complete work on the 2009 budget. Montroll acknowledged the tension between BT and the advisory committee, but said it's not necessarily a bad thing.
"This kind of report, I think, is good," Montroll said. "It gives us a lot of information about concerns we need to be aware of. Now our job is to start dealing with them."