"Important meeting about Burlington's cable television project," blared the full-page ad in last Wednesday's Burlington Free Press. Intended to boost attendance at a local forum that night, it also warned Burlingtonians, "This may be your only chance to ask questions or have your voices heard."
The ad was the latest offensive in the battle over Burlington Telecom's proposed cable TV service. Though voters have approved the city-owned municipal phone, cable and Internet service, Adelphia argues the project shouldn't be granted a Certificate of Public Good. The Public Service Board is holding hearings on the plan.
"What's Adelphia afraid of?" Mayor Peter Clavelle asked rhetorically in his opening remarks before the crowd of nearly 100 at the Burlington City Hall forum. "They have had a monopoly on providing cable service to the people of this community." Gesturing to the ad, he told the Adelphia subscribers in the crowd, "You're paying for this."
His charge wasn't exactly accurate. The ad was sponsored by the New England chapter of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, an industry lobbying group. Adelphia is a member, but NECTA bought the ad, which also mentioned providers like DISH and DirecTV, and noted that Verizon plans to get in on the cable game, too; Adelphia, by the way, plans to expand its offerings to include phone service.
Why would a national trade organization spring for a full-page ad in Vermont's largest newspaper? Because Burlington's municipal telecommunications project, which also seeks to offer phone, cable and broadband Internet connections, doesn't just threaten Adelphia -- if it succeeds, it'll be a thorn in the side of the entire telecommunications industry. Fed up with shoddy service and skyrocketing cable bills, many Burlingtonians seem pleased by that prospect.
NECTA is seeking to discredit the project. The ad paraphrased the conclusion of a study by the Heartland Institute, a think tank that has blasted municipally owned broadband Internet networks such has Montpelier's MontpelierNet. "Government-run cable television businesses tend to fail or leave taxpayers responsible for paying the bill," the ad read.
Incidentally, the Heartland Institute, an "independent" think tank, is a member of Townhall.com. The banner on its website reads, "Conservative News and Information... the Conservative Movement Starts Here." Other members include the Family Research Council, The Cato Institute and the Reagan Ranch.
The Heartland Institute's conclusion is controversial. At the hearing, representatives from the city and Burlington Telecom insisted that the network -- which will be open to Adelphia and Verizon -- will pay for itself. Should the project fail, they said, the city's network will fall into the hands of a private company that's helping to finance the project; Burlington taxpayers will not be left holding the bag.
Advocates for municipal networks also argue that local governments manage other utilities well. They contend that telecommunications infrastructure has become as essential to economic growth and public life as electricity or public roads.
Lisa Birmingham, Adelphia's director of governmental affairs, has an opinion on that. After listening to angry ratepayers for more than an hour, she warned that managing a network as complicated as the one the city is planning won't be easy. "This is a difficult business," she insisted. "This is not like turning on the power." Given the variety of testimony heard last Wednesday night -- most of the or so 22 speakers complained bitterly about Adelphia's customer service -- that statement seems reasonable.
The next skirmish between the city and Adelphia will take place at a formal hearing in Montpelier in May; a final decision from the Public Service Board is expected in early July. As the moderator walked out, he muttered quietly to Birmingham, "See you in court."