Public Service Commission breaks down Suddenlink fine
CHARLESTON, W.Va. (WSAZ) - On Feb. 9, the West Virginia Public Service Commission announced its largest fine to date, when they levied a $2.242 million penalty against cable provider Suddenlink.
“We got here because thousands of Suddenlink customers had been complaining about their cable service, said PSC Chairwoman Charlotte Lane. “We opened up a general investigation and found that Suddenlink has failed to provide safe and reliable and adequate service and as a result of that we fined them.”
The PSC says they determined the amount by charging $1,000 a day for each day since Suddenlink sold the company to Altice USA in December 2015.
“That money is going to be returned to the customers as a credit on their next bill,” Lane said. “We will take the number of customers Suddenlink has and divide that into the credit.”
The money will be doled out to cable customers, since that is the only jurisdiction the PSC has over the company.
The commission says they’ve received more than 2,764 complaints as of Aug. 26, 2021. About 1,900 of those have come in since 2019.
Their investigation determined Suddenlink did not report cable service outages that lasted more than 24 hours to the Commission. Reports also indicate customers weren’t able to request a credit for a qualifying outage when they called to report the problem.
“We will take every available avenue we can to enforce this order,” Lane said.
Customers also complained about long wait times and no call back when making calls to the company. Lane says that problem was made worse when Suddenlink closed the state’s only call center in Parkersburg in 2017.
“That call center was really really good, gave good customer service,” she said. “People were really happy that they could call a real person and get to talk to them about their problems.”
Part of the order demands that Suddenlink provide plans to reopen a call center, which must be presented within 90 days.
Records show in 2019, Suddenlink answered 36% of calls in the United States. That number dropped to 5% in 2020 and routed just 2% of calls to representatives in the U.S. in 2021. Call centers are located in Egypt. Jamaica, Dominican Republic, South Africa and Columbia.
There is one call center based in Texas, but it prioritizes business customers and rarely handles non-business customer calls. The company has previously discussed plans of opening another caller center in the U.S.
The PSC says Suddenlink currently operates in 31 counties in the state and has 115 service areas, but it only operates seven business centers in West Virginia.
“I am hoping that this order gets their attention and they recognize that it’s the customers who are there paying their bills, and they ought to be paying attention to their customers,” Lane said.
Another common consumer complaint was that the company did not post payments timely, which resulted in customers service being terminated or incurring late fees.
Reporter Kelsey Souto asked Lane if she’d ever dealt with a company of this magnitude.
“I have not dealt with a company that had this many complaints against them,” she said. “What is really disheartening to me is that you can really see the line of demarcation from the day that Suddenlink sold to Altice and after they sold to Altice, that’s when the breakdown occurred.”
Also in the formal order, the PSC says Suddenlink charged excessive late fees during 2020. Rules and regulations state operators can charge a fixed fee of no more than two dollars on the unpaid balance after the scheduled due date. Annual reports indicate that Suddenlink reported a late fee charge of $10, while the late charge in Kanawha County was $30.
In 2021, Suddenlink reports listed a late charge of two dollars, but in Kanawha County the company was charging $25. Suddenlink maintains that it was charging the correct amount for late fees.
Officials also say the company significantly decreased the amount of its outside plant maintenance in 2018 and continued to decrease maintenance and expenditures until 2021. Documents show Suddenlink did not perform vegetation maintenance unless it worked on a cable line where vegetation was an issue. They rely on the electric company to maintain the vegetation along the line.
“We are their biggest customer base,” Lane said. “They make millions of dollars from us and what they need to do to solve these problems will be well worth it for them.”
The investigation also found several clerical and administrative errors. Suddenlink had 28 expired franchise agreements and four that were to expire by the end of 2021.
Lane says fines will continue to rack up if additional complaints come in and changes aren’t made.
“I think they didn’t take us seriously,” she said, “I think they thought that West Virginians have no other choice and they were just going to do business as usual and the way that they chose to do so.”
Records show contractors were not properly registered and licensed to do business in the state.
There were also problems with the accounting of E-911 fees in certain counties. The PSC requested an audit for each county from 2018-2021 and return any unpaid fees to the county commissions.
Reporter Kelsey Souto asked the commissioner if there was a way to prevent customers from footing the bill in the form of increased rates to compensate for the fine.
“We don’t have rate regulation over cable companies,” she said. “So if Suddenlink decides to start raising rates then there’s not a whole lot we can do about that except try and cajole them and say ‘this looks like retaliation, do you really want to do this?”
Suddenlink provides service to roughly 133,000 cable customers.
To learn more about the West Virginia Public Service Commission, click here.
Suddenlink Statement on WV PSC Order
Suddenlink shares the State’s goal of ensuring West Virginians receive high-quality service and have a positive customer experience. We have made and continue to make substantial investments in our network and customer support that are resulting in significant improvements in performance. We have cooperated with the WV PSC over the course of its review and are reviewing today’s order.
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