Suddenlink representatives sat stone-faced during the West Virginia Public Service Commission’s hearing in Beckley as they listened to dozens of customers tell them just how bad their cable service has become.
On Monday evening, in a hearing that lasted over two hours, more than 25 people spoke about unfair billing practices, the lack of quality customer service, the need for competition and much more in regards to the cable, internet and phone provider Suddenlink, a company that provides services to more than 300,000 households and small businesses and has over 133,000 cable television customers in West Virginia.
The hearing, which was called after Suddenlink failed to provide the Public Service Commission (PSC) with a correction plan detailing how they were going to improve services in June, was led by PSC Chair Charlotte Lane.
“We have received about 2,000 customer complaints about Suddenlink since 2019,” Lane stated as she began the hearing. She said the goal of the PSC is to “facilitate an improvement in service.” Part of the improvement plan is listening to concerns from local customers who are becoming increasingly frustrated by the company.
The first customer to speak before the PSC was Kevin Williams.
“To begin with, cable services go in and out,” Williams stated. “That is a problem.” He continued that the PSC should look at other options for a cable service provider for West Virginia.
“I think we need to maybe look at bidding for other cable companies to come in,” he said. “Right now there is a monopoly. There is no one else to compete with Suddenlink, so pretty much they can do whatever they want to do and we are left to foot the bill.”
Another speaker, Jeff Simpson, said “You know, 10-12 years ago Suddenlink was a great company . . . and then we started hearing this name Altice. Since Altice has gotten involved, things have gotten horrendous whenever you try to call in.” He stated that the old call center, once located in Parkersburg, provided excellent customer service but now that they are gone customer service has plummeted.
Phyllis Bostic added that she didn’t understand the reason for all of the additional fees included in her bill.
“We have all these fees and our fees are $30-$40 a month on this bill. What are all these fees?” she asked. “I don’t work for you, so I don’t know why I am paying a franchise fee. On top of that is the sports fee . . . why are we paying an extra sports fee?”
Bostic said her bill continues to increase, but when she calls about the increases, she is told she is no longer part of a monthly promotion.
“I didn’t even know I was even on a three year promotion that expired,” Bostic said. “I don’t know why we have to keep paying all these extra fees.”
Dean Farris, a resident of Arnett, said that his bill “goes up and down” and he has been out of phone, cable and internet for two weeks. Suddenlink sent a sub-contractor to his house to fix the problem, Farris noted, but the contractor didn’t fix anything.
Not only did residents come out to the hearing, but local officials decided to lend their voice to help with customer issues.
Beckley’s Information Technology Director, William Kelly, spoke before the PSC as a representative for the city.
“The city of Beckley is a customer of Suddenlink,” Kelly said. “We suffer from the same issues — whether it’s inconsistent TV service or whether it’s an inability to actually contact someone who can give you help with a cable problem.”
He said that the city receives numerous complaints from residents about Suddenlink, including those from people who don’t understand fees and get upset with billing.
“I will say from the city’s perspective as a franchise authority, it is very frustrating for us that we don’t have more control, more say so, more ability to actually address these people’s complaints.”
He concluded by stating that Suddenlink once had local representatives who could help, but Altice has pushed most of those people out. “I certainly believe there is something Suddenlink could do about this, if they really wanted to,” Kelly concluded.
Delegate Mick Bates (R-Raleigh) told commissioners that he has “personally fielded hundreds of complaints” from those upset with Suddenlink. The complaints basically fall into three categories: lack of customer service, poor service and billing issues.
“You will hear from Suddenlink that all this is because of Covid,” Bates said. “Quite frankly, I’m tired of Covid being the excuse for everything we can’t get right. These problems existed before Covid, they existed during Covid, and, if there is ever such a day, they will exist after Covid unless we make this company accountable for what it is doing and what it is not doing.”
“Access to the outside world is essential in this modern world and while it may not be regulated as a utility, it is as essential as electricity, sewer, water and gas,” Bates said. “Suddenlink essentially operates as a monopoly in many areas of our state and because of this, they can charge whatever they want, however they want, whenever they want.”
“We are gonna fix this problem,” Bates said of himself and those in the state legislature.
Delegate Brandon Steele (R-Raleigh) added that in the past legislative session he read a bill, which passed through his committee on a non-partisan basis, that would have given the PSC power to regulate Suddenlink.
“Not one person from Altice or Suddenlink ever came to my office to talk about that bill. No lobbyist ever stopped by and I’ll tell you why — because they knew that we couldn’t do anything about it,” Steele said. “When I got done with that bill, and we were getting ready to communicate the committee report, we were all notified that this was regulated by the FCC and we didn’t have the power to do it anyway.” He noted that “we are up against a giant” regarding the Federal Communications Commission.
Steele said that the state is going to need to work with the federal government, including Sen. Joe Manchin, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito and Rep. Carol Miller, to stop the residents of West Virginia from getting “ripped off.”
“The people that are coming out and fixing this stuff, time and time again we hear that it’s subcontractors,” Steele noted of the local Suddenlink workforce. “They are not employing people in our state. They are not here creating jobs . . . The billing practices, the transparency, the service, the customer service, the use of contractors — they are not being a friend to this state.”
As each person went to the podium to speak, those in the audience cheered, clapped and shouted “Amen,” as they shared their personal stories of poor customer service and found that they were not alone.
The PSC is hosting three additional in-person public comment hearings, including one in Princeton on Tuesday, Sept. 14.
For those who are unable to attend the hearings, but still want their voices heard, they may send a letter to the commission at 201 Brooks Street, Charleston, WV 25301 or they can submit a comment on the commission’s website www.psc.state.wv.us.
Suddenlink representatives at the Beckley hearing included Jim Campbell, VP of Government Affairs; Bob Lillie, VP Local Market Engagement; Bethany Simmons, manager of Local Market Engagement and Charleston based attorney David Hanna representing Suddenlink.
When asked for comment on the hearing, Suddenlink Director of Communications Ashwin Bhandari sent the following statement to the West Virginia Daily News via email:
“Suddenlink is proud to serve our West Virginia communities. We take very seriously our commitment to providing quality connectivity and reliable service, and to ensuring our customers have positive experiences when they engage with us.
We recognize that some customers have had challenges with our services or experienced frustration. We appreciate the time customers took to share those experiences with us, and we will follow up with each of them to address their concerns.
The company continues to invest in advanced infrastructure to ensure our customers receive reliable broadband, video, and phone service, including upgrading portions of our network to increase capacity and addressing pockets of network congestion, and we continue to see improvements in our service quality. We have 1 Gig internet available to more than 90% of households we serve in West Virginia, and we continue to launch new innovative services for customers such as Optimum Mobile and Stream to give them more connectivity and entertainment choices.
Our teams are working diligently to continuously enhance the service experience for our West Virginia customers, and we are committed to communicating with the PSC and other public officials about our ongoing investments and service improvements.”
Following the conclusion of the hearings, the PSC will hold a main evidentiary hearing on Oct. 6.