Council passes first reading of Suddenlink agreement

·4 min read

Jun. 17—LEWISBURG — Following lengthy airings of complaints about the quality of service provided by Suddenlink Communications, a majority composed of four City Council members and Mayor Beverly White voted in favor of continuing Lewisburg's relationship with the company.

A public hearing and second reading of the ordinance granting the firm permission to operate within the city limits for another five years will likely take place at next month's meeting, after a new Council is seated.

Suddenlink, the name under which Altice S.A., a company based in France, provides telephone, internet and cable television service to approximately 350,000 West Virginia customers, including many in and around Lewisburg.

Both Greenbrier County and city officials have a long history of saber-rattling when Suddenlink's franchise renewals arise. But after tabling the renewal ordinances a time or two, those same officials always acknowledge they have no other option but to vote for renewal, out of fear that if Suddenlink leaves, no other communications company stands ready to fill the gap in services.

Before casting one of his final votes in favor of the Suddenlink franchise, outgoing Council member Mark Etten suggested that city officials begin now to canvass other providers to gauge their interest in taking over from Suddenlink, in order to prepare for the next renewal request, expected in 2025.

He also opposed negotiating a shorter term for the duration of Suddenlink's franchise, saying it would take time for a new provider or providers to assume the reins, making even a year-long turnaround unrealistic.

Leaving the terms unchanged from the last negotiation was a major sticking point for outgoing Council member Heather Blake, contributing to her decision to cast the lone ballot against continuing Suddenlink's franchise.

Blake also balked at a representation by the company's spokesperson, Erin Jones, that three to five days is an acceptable length of time to wait for service to be restored after a report of an outage.

"That's a really long time," Blake protested, noting that today's reliance on at-home technology for such daily essentials as schoolwork and paying bills makes lengthy outages untenable.

Former Lewisburg Mayor DeEtta Hunter characterized her experiences with Suddenlink through the years as "a nightmare."

She raised such issues as the company's substituting WOAY's local content for fellow ABC affiliate WCHS's programming and similar preemptions favoring Beckley's CBS affiliate over Roanoke's, a complaint for which Jones had no immediate answer.

Fuzzy television reception and randomly rising bills with no advance notice were also on Hunter's list of concerns, many of which were echoed by Council members.

"Suddenlink is not taking care of the little city of Lewisburg," Hunter maintained, telling city officials, "You're being buffaloed."

Jones touted the financial investment that Altice/Suddenlink has made in West Virginia during the past year, along with new programs that streamline bundled services and offer special internet rates for low-income households.

"Four- to five-million dollars were invested in infrastructure in West Virginia (by Altice) last year," Jones said.

She added that customers are advised 30 days in advance of regular annual rate hikes. Rate increases that appear to be sporadic are actually linked to a customer's dropping off of a promotional rate, Jones said.

That last statement was challenged by outgoing Council member Joshua Edwards, who said he has personally encountered random billing changes from Suddenlink, as had most other customers.

"You need to check your facts," he advised Jones.

Just before the motion to approve the franchise extension was put to a vote, Hunter once more spoke directly to City Council, urging more groundwork be done before pushing the measure on to a final vote next month.

"Make them show you what they're going to do," she pleaded. "Get something in writing."

----Suddenlink is also under pressure from state utility regulators.

West Virginia Public Service Commission Chairman Charlotte Lane met last month with company officials to discuss the nearly 1,900 complaints about Suddenlink services sent by the company's customers to the PSC since 2019.

Lane asked the firm to submit a plan to correct inadequate customer service, with instructions that the plan should address how and when Suddenlink will open a call center in the Mountain State and hire sufficient employees to respond to service calls. She also indicated the plan should include corrections for a variety of billing issues that had been brought to the PSC's attention.

— Email: talvey@register-herald.com

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