PSC Staff Displeased With Suddenlink Business Practices - West Virginia Daily News
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PSC Staff Displeased With Suddenlink Business Practices

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Day two of the West Virginia Public Service Commission’s evidentiary hearing into the business practices of Suddenlink provided a deeper insight into the company—one that didn’t paint a perfect picture of their willingness to make a change and address poor customer service.

Multiple people took the stand on Thursday, Oct. 7, to discuss improper late fee charges, lack of documentation for E-911 fee payments, bad network maintenance and more. Those testifying included a county commissioner, a customer, multiple Public Service Commission (PSC) staff members and one Suddenlink representative.

One visible difference between the two days of hearings was the lack of Suddenlink representation on the second day.

On day one, two senior-level management officials spoke about what has gone wrong with the company and the ways in which they plan to address shortcomings. On hearing day two, those senior-level officials were not in attendance.

Public Service Commissioner Bill Raney stated that he felt they should have “been mandated to be at the public hearings.” He later said he was concerned that Suddenlink officials who had testified the prior day had “media training.”

“A lot of what we heard yesterday was very much like no matter who is asking the question you are going to get pretty much the same answer. I hope that’s not true, but I was certainly struck by that,” Raney commented.

PSC Chair Charlotte Lane stated “I’m not sure the folks yesterday understood the magnitude of the problem, and I think had they understood the magnitude of the problem, they would have stayed for the continuation of this hearing today.”

She explained that the PSC may fine the company for each violation committed. These fines range from $100-$1,000 per violation. This could amount to more than $1 million in fines the company would be forced to pay.

The one Suddenlink representative to take the stand was Vice-President of State and Local Government James Campbell.

Campbell was asked to clarify the company’s response regarding franchise agreements throughout the state. He said that Suddenlink has 115 franchise locations, but that 24 of them have expired. He continued that the company is working toward finalizing those agreements, but COVID affected their ability to comply with both federal and state laws to maintain the agreements.

He commented that the company does plan to open three new business/retail locations to meet state law that a business must be located “in or near” a franchise location, however he said that the word “near” is subjective and that he cannot disclose where the retail locations are slated to open. Later in the hearing, it was noted that location of business/retail buildings should be identified in the franchise agreement between Suddenlink officials and franchise authorities. In many instances in West Virginia, the location of the retail offices, where customers can go to pay bills, return equipment, etc., was never identified.

Additionally, Campbell agreed that Suddenlink should complete an audit of their E-911 fee collection and disbursement, per PSC staff recommendation. This suggested audit came as a result of miscalculations of fees collected from customers who have telephone service throughout Suddenlink and paid to various counties.

“We will agree to an audit and work with staff to accomplish that goal,” he said.

According to Lane, at least one West Virginia county has experienced a “substantial” error in regards to E-911 fees. She stated that the PSC will ensure that Suddenlink provides required accounting information in a timely manner, since the company provided no expert witness during the hearing to testify about E-911 fees.

Margaret Robinson, PSC utilities analyst then took the stand.

She stated that Suddenlink actually has 28 expired franchise agreements. She said that Suddenlink should be required to renew those agreements, so that “franchise authorities do not invite other service providers into their area.”

She also testified that in certain areas of the state, Suddenlink had been charging customers $10-$30 late fees, but the state code only allows for a $2 late fee. She said Suddenlink should audit their 2020 and 2021 late fee charges and credit customers back for any late fee overage.

In continued questioning, Robinson said that, in her opinion, customers should not be forced to call the company and request that any late fee overage charge be credited to their account, instead the company should take care of that during their audit.

Todd Midkiff, engineering technician for the PSC, then testified about the company’s network problems.

He said he is concerned that “Suddenlink is failing to maintain their network, thereby causing harm to its customers and constituents in West Virginia.”

Further, he contrasted Suddenlink, the largest cable provider in West Virginia, against Comcast, the second largest West Virginia cable provider. He said Comcast is about 15 percent smaller than Suddenlink, but since 2015, they have had “one formal case that was settled through mediation.” They have also had about 35 informal complaints since 2017, while Suddenlink has seen a dramatic increase in complaints since 2015. Lane had previously noted that the PSC has received over 2,000 customer complaints in that same time frame.

When questioned about the company’s use of contractors versus full-time employees, Midkiff had a lot to say.

He stated that contractors used by Suddenlink are not licensed to do business in West Virginia. He said he checked with the state, but they are not listed.

Additionally, contractors will not show “loyalty” to Suddenlink in the same way that full-time employees do.

Suddenlink employs 43 field technicians and 32 outside plant construction technicians, Midkiff continued. They have 83 contractors in the state. He noted that contractors do not work “directly with Suddenlink field technicians on plant construction” as was stated by Pragash Pillai, executive vice-president of communications for Suddenlink, on hearing day one.

In order for Suddenlink to be effective at maintaining its plant system, they should double their workforce, Midkiff suggested. He continued that he believes the majority of customer complaints stem from poor plant maintenance and lack of contractor training.

“Suddenlink should hire more employees, field technicians especially, to maintain their network, handle their service requests for new service and outages. I feel that an audit should be completed for their 911 billings . . .for every telephone number that Suddenlink has and the amount of revenue collected per number and the amount remitted to the 911 centers.”

He said he does not feel as if Suddenlink has provided customers with safe, adequate and reliable service as provided by West Virginia law.

Terri Blake, cable television supervisor for the PSC, testified about cable outages.

She said that Suddenlink should be required to notify certain personnel about outages and create proper trouble-call tickets so that customers who are without cable for more than 24 hours receive a $20 credit.

Even though Suddenlink officials testified that they have changed their escalation policy to allow customers to speak to a call-center supervisor, Blake said that she still has concerns with customer care following the prior day’s testimony.

“I would bet that if you call in there today and ask to speak to a supervisor, you would still have the same difficulties because we are getting complaints filed within the last week that people can’t talk to supervisors,” Blake commented. Further, Blake said that the call-back policy to decrease long hold-times isn’t working.

She recommended that the company should provide the PSC with their state maintenance budget for new equipment and cable, as well, since it is her understanding that they have cut-out the total maintenance budget. Instead, they rely on the power or telephone company to maintain the poles and vegetation surrounding them.

As for the yearly increase in customer complaints provided to the PSC, Blake was able to provide the following numbers:

-2015- 130 complaints;

-2016- 118 complaints;

-2017- 193 complaints (This was the year when mass company lay-offs occurred, according to Blake);

-2018- 316 complaints;

-2019-585 complaints;

-2020-1,005 complaints; and,

-2021-The company is on target to receive 1,061 complaints.

“The hole is so deep, I don’t know how long it’s gonna take them to get out,” Blake said.

Earlier in the hearing, Kanawha County Commission President Kent Carper said that since the PSC started looking into the company, Suddenlink has been “scrambling around” to address complaints. However, he also noted that it would take a long time for the company to address and fix all of its issues.

“Almost every day we get a complaint at the county commission about problems with Suddenlink and I don’t see that the service has gotten any better,” he said.

He added that cable is a lifeline for a lot of people, and he gets frustrated when residents cannot get the service they pay for.

“If they were half as efficient about fixing things as they are about cutting cable off, we wouldn’t be here right now,” Carper said of Suddenlink. “They are ruthlessly efficient when they don’t get paid.”

Lane concluded the hearing by stating that she wants to see the company come up with solutions to solve these “very real problems” in West Virginia.

“We are serious about this,” Lane said of herself and the PSC.

The PSC will meet again at a later date, to determine if Suddenlink has shown cause as to why statutory penalties should not be imposed on the company, or have its West Virginia cable franchise revoked or suspended.

The West Virginia Daily News will provide an update on the hearing date when the information becomes available.

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