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A pitch for more authority

Public Service Commission Chairperson Charlotte Lane made a case that her agency should have full regulatory authority over internet service at a joint meeting of legislative interim session infrastructure and technology committees Tuesday.

The chairwoman of the West Virginia Public Service Commission called on state lawmakers to give her agency greater regulatory authority over cable and internet providers Tuesday as the commission eyes cracking down on Suddenlink.

The commission’s staff has testified that Suddenlink should pay for what it says are unacceptably bad customer service and unlawful franchise agreements in a case that the commission opened scrutinizing the company’s quality of service to about 190,000 subscribers in West Virginia.

Speaking at a joint meeting of legislative interim session committees on infrastructure and technology, commission chairwoman Charlotte Lane noted the many customer complaints the commission has received before and after it opened the case in July requiring Suddenlink to demonstrate why the agency shouldn’t penalize the company for noncompliance with state code.

The commission opened the case in July, after a sharp increase in customer complaints filed with it in recent years. The agency received nearly 1,900 complaints from West Virginia customers regarding Suddenlink’s service since 2019, it noted in its July order opening the case.

Lane noted before lawmakers Tuesday that the number of complaints escalated after the company’s call center in Parkersburg closed in 2017 and its call center operations moved overseas.

A commission staff case filing indicates that complaints against Suddenlink filed with the agency totaled 2,571 from 2018 through Aug. 26, 2021, after numbering just 441 from 2015 through 2017.

“The customer complaints are now outsourced to out-of-country places and customers have a hard time understanding what they’re hearing,” Lane said, citing testimony at public comment hearings the commission held on the case in Charleston, Beckley and Princeton. “And so I think that we would probably be asking that we have a call center in West Virginia by Suddenlink. I think that will solve a lot of the problems.”

But Jim Campbell, vice president of state and local government affairs for Suddenlink’s Texas-based parent company, Altice USA, subsequently told lawmakers that call center training is more important than location.

“If we have people that are properly trained, I think that takes care of much of the problem versus the location,” Campbell said.

Lane told lawmakers the commission hopes to issue its final order in the Suddenlink case by the end of the year.

“If, after our deliberations and getting the order out in this case, we find that our jurisdiction needs to be increased, we will be coming back to the Legislature to strengthen the law in this area,” Lane said.

Linda Bouvette, commission staff attorney, reported that Comcast, which operates in Northern West Virginia, has had a “dramatically lower” number of complaints than Suddenlink, despite having a customer base that’s only 15% smaller.

There have been 242 complaints against Comcast filed with the commission from 2015 through 2021, commission staff noted in its initial brief in the case earlier this month.

More than 10 times that many complaints have been filed with the commission against Suddenlink, just since 2018.

Campbell offered assurance to lawmakers that Altice USA, which acquired Suddenlink in 2015, is making progress.

“We were at every public [comment] hearing and the evidentiary hearing, and we see the frustrations,” Campbell said. “We recognize the frustrations that subscribers feel here in West Virginia, and I’m here to tell you that we own it. And if we own it, we have to fix it.”

But Altice USA has fought back in the case against a laundry list of commission staff recommendations that the agency impose penalties and more stringent regulations for failures in Suddenlink service.

In a reply brief filed Monday, Altice USA called the commission staff’s recommendations “overbroad and legally unsupported.”

The commission staff said in its initial brief earlier this month that it saw “little empathy” from Suddenlink executives at the evidentiary hearing for the “suffering endured” by customers because of poor service quality and customer service.

The staff said Suddenlink should be required to pay $1 million in penalties as a result.

The commission staff said the company did not follow contract guidelines found in state code in its franchise agreements, missing items about subscriber protections that included procedures for restoring interrupted service and improving substandard service, credits or refunds for interrupted service, office hours and recording of subscriber complaints.

The staff recommended that the commission impose a $1,000 penalty for each franchise agreement that violates state code.

The commission staff noted a company witness testified that Suddenlink intended to add three business centers to its West Virginia operations in 2022 but refused to disclose the locations of the three proposed sites, adding that the witness was unaware that the company had to get prior approval of the location from a franchise authority or the commission.

“Suddenlink operates in West Virginia as if it has no regulatory or contractual obligations,” the commission staff wrote.

The staff found that seven business offices for 31 counties served was unreasonable and a violation of state code, recommending the commission order Suddenlink to install additional business offices in locations wherever customers are now traveling more than 45 miles to reach an existing business office.

“Suddenlink’s problems are the result of a poorly maintained infrastructure and poorly trained employees and contractors, all resulting from cost-cutting measures made by Altice when it acquired Suddenlink,” the staff concluded.

Altice USA defended its response to the commission’s inquiry, rejecting the commission staff’s accusation that it lacks empathy for its customers. The company reported that it is simplifying bills and agreed to provide the commission with metrics tracking the performance of its field service and customer care operations.

“We have a long way to go, and we understand that,” Campbell said.

Lane recalled past resistance in the Legislature to giving the Public Service Commission full regulatory authority over internet service, something she said she wants her agency to have.

“I’d like to expand the cable jurisdiction, because that’s what we currently have, and we need to fill in the gaps to provide service over cable, and we have discovered that there are service problems with the internet also,” Lane said. “In the past, the Legislature has not been willing to give us jurisdiction over the internet service, but I do want to talk to the legislative leaders to see if they’re willing to allow us to pursue that.”

The commission has jurisdiction over cable television service under the state Cable Television Systems Act.

Delegate Daniel Linville, R-Cabell, assistant majority whip and chairman of the Technology & Infrastructure Committee, signaled opposition to Lane’s request for Public Service Commission regulatory authority over internet service, observing that the agency generally regulates monopolies and that the Attorney General’s Office also can play a consumer advocate role.

“It’s the Public Service Commission’s position that anybody that provides a service to the public should be accountable to the public, and right now, there’s nobody that is making the internet accountable to the public,” Lane said, adding that the commission “provides accountability for all other utility service” and would be the most logical entity to do the same for internet service.

Mike Tony covers energy and the environment. He can be reached at 304-348-1236 or mtony@hdmediallc

.com. Follow @Mike__Tony on Twitter.

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