Aug. 24—During the state's history, West Virginians have had to fight — for miners' rights, for black lung benefits, for their country and, sometimes, to eke out a living when the coal mines were shut down and they needed to feed their families.
In the ceremonial courtroom at Raleigh County Courthouse on Monday evening, around 50 West Virginians attended a meeting with the Public Service Commission and Suddenlink Communication representatives and told them about the fight they're having to get telephone and cable service, along with internet service.
The new fight — for reliable telephone and internet service — has had an impact on their livelihood, in some cases, their medical care, their access to emergency services and their children's education.
Del. Mick Bates, R-Raleigh, had led a movement in Charleston in January to "fix the internet." Bates and Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, both spoke at the hearing about the challenges lawmakers and the average person are having with what they said is a "monopoly" that Suddenlink holds in West Virginia.
Steele said the PSC must work with state lawmakers and the federal government to find a way to help residents.
The PSC, which regulates state utilities, does not regulate internet service but regulates cable and phone services.
The meeting was to focus on cable and telephone service, after the PSC received around 2,000 complaints about Suddenlink in 2019, but the discussion sometimes detoured to internet service. Residents pointed out that internet service does not require an additional line into the home or the business and that it is included, in many cases, as a package with the telephone and cable services.
Bates said he has received "hundreds of complaints" from residents about lack of service or poor service. He said customers also reported billing problems related to affordability, predictability and transparency. He said Suddenlink officials have used Covid as an "excuse" for the issues, which pre-date the pandemic.
"Quite frankly, I'm tired of Covid being the excuse for everything we can't get right," said Bates, drawing applause from those gathered. "These problems existed before Covid, they existed during Covid, and, if ever there is such a day, they will exist after Covid, unless we make this company accountable for what it's doing and not doing."
Internet service is not treated as a utility, but Bates pointed out that it is as vital as electricity and water services.
He said it is also more expensive.
"Suddenlink can charge whatever they want, whenever they want ... It's the biggest utility bill that many of my constituents have," Bates said, adding that, in some cases, the bill is higher than all utilities combined.
Bates, who owns BodyWorks in Beckley, said he would be out of business if he followed Suddenlink's model.
"Quite frankly, I'd be embarrassed and ashamed," he added.
Many residents said Suddenlink had provided good service until being purchased by Altice, a French company, in 2015 in a $9.1 billion deal.
Since then, they said, the service has been disappointing — at best.
Customer Olan Dodd said his fees and costs have increased by 33 percent in the last year without any changes in the services or stations that he gets.
"As far as quality of the picture, it's terrible," Dodd added. "It's in and out.
"The cost factors keep going up, and the quality keeps going down."
One by one, residents stood to tell PSC Chair Charlotte Lane and Commission member Renee Larrick and Bill Rainey, along with those from Suddenlink and a PSC consumer advocate, about ongoing problems with Suddenlink: interrupted service, unexplained charges, charges for services not received, unrequested services being added by Suddenlink to their bills, being billed for equipment that Suddenlink did not provide for them, internet service that slows during certain parts of the day, customer service representatives who can't understand English (or not, at least, a "hillbilly" dialect, local attorney Gary Frashure noted), waiting on hold for an hour for customer service and then getting disconnected and no call back, dealing with subcontractors who do not live in the state and who allegedly damaged property during installations, waiting on the line for 45 minutes at the local office to pay a bill, lack of local customer service options, $60 charges for visits by subcontractors, with no solution to service problems, and a lack of transparency and concern for customers by Suddenlink.
Veronica Cole of Arnett said her husband lives with coal workers' pneumoconiosis (CWP), commonly called black lung.
"The only telephone service we have is Suddenlink," Cole told the PSC. She said she's been with Suddenlink since 2003. "Here in July, for two weeks, we didn't have a phone or internet."
She pays "anywhere from $230 to $247 a month" and does not get the service promised.
"They've got a monopoly," she said. "They're the only one we can turn to.
"I wouldn't have it, period, but my husband, where he's got black lung, television is all he has."
Dean Farris said he lives "up in the same holler" as Cole, and his bill goes "up and down," and he's been without a phone, TV and internet for two weeks at a time.
Glenna Lee got sympathetic laughter from other speakers when she told the PSC that she has had six bills since February with five different amounts. When she called to ask about a promotional Visa card she had been promised but never received, Suddenlink told her the offer had expired but that she would get free Showtime for three months instead.
"That Showtime don't mean nothing to me," said Lee, who added she will not let her grandkids watch it. "It's nasty. I'd rather have my service properly billed as to have things like that.
"(I've) never seen a cable company close for lunch, and you have to stand in line outside 'til they come back," added Lee.
Tom Gavinn of Mount Hope pointed at the table where Suddenlink officials sat and told the audience he "had even gone to corporate" to get his bill "straightened out."
"The billing is terrible," he said. "And they keep charging for equipment. I've had the same box for 10 years."
City of Beckley IT Department Director Bill Kelly represented Mayor Rob Rappold at the meeting. Kelly said the city has a history of bad service with Suddenlink, including phones disconnecting, and that city officials take complaints from residents continually but are unable to offer relief to them.
He said complaints include unknown charges, fees for unknown services, bad customer service and bills that rise constantly.
"It's very frustrating for us, that we don't have more control, more say-so, more ability to actually address these people's complaints," said Kelly. "We have to look for the PSC to do that for us ... and state legislators ... to give the city more authority to take some action to work on that."
He said the city suffers as a customer and, as a private resident, his own service has been lacking. Kelly said that since Altice took over, it is difficult to get adequate customer service.
"I certainly believe there's something Suddenlink could do about this if they really wanted to," Kelly said, looking over at the Suddenlink table.
Ramona Jarrell thanked Del. Bates and said the "old service" had been better than service under Altice.
Her husband died six years ago, she said, and Suddenlink billed him for service for five years after his death.
Agnes Keatley, 85, author of "Uptown Girl," a local memoir, reported a long list of billing problems. She had been billed for three lines for an unknown number of months, when she had only one line. The cost of each line was $6. Instead of refunding Keatley's payment for the lines she did not have, the company refunded only $6.
When Keatley asked about the rest of her refund, she said, the agent replied, "Ma'am, you didn't report it before this month."
"I feel like Suddenlink just has us stretched over a barrel becuase we don't have any other choice," Keatley said. "We want our computers and our phones and our TVs, and there's nothing we can do about it."
Michael Lynch of Beckley said Suddenlink subcontractors who came to his house did not seem to like helping him with his bad service, which was preventing him from watching his Pittsburgh Steelers and other sports shows. A subcontractor made remarks about the family having three TV sets, he said.
"The only reason I didn't throw him out the house is because I wanted my internet on," he said. "That's the only reason I put up with his mess and his constant bickering."
Erica Scarbro, formerly of Fayette County, said she lives in East Beckley but her internet service gets interrupted as if she were living in a rural part of the state.
"This is the 21st century," she said. "We don't live in the 1990s. This isn't the early 2000s.
"We live in a time when more and more people are using the internet," she said, adding it is necessary for work and education.
Mark Kodack said he has a $246 bill each month while Linda Bullock reported her service was cut off by accident, despite her calling Suddenlink several times to warn them not to cut off her service.
"You people on the board up there need to introduce some competition," James Patterson told the PSC. "Because these people don't have competition.
"If you don't have competition, you don't have to do a thing."
A Naoma resident reported that she has been without phone service for a month although her neighbors have it.
Raleigh County Clerk Danny Moore said that, although he had to buy his own modem, Suddenlink was billing him $10 a month for an unknown number of billing cycles for a modem. The company also charged $3.20 each month for an unrequested TV Guide.
"They just took it upon their self to start charging and sending me a TV Guide I didn't need," said Moore, adding that the fees listed on Suddenlink bills are also confusing. "That's entertainment, all right."
Mac Carnes of Grandview said he has tracked the internet speed and it slows down each evening at the same time, while Delores Key said, "Someone needs to listen to us."
Altice USA earned $2.52 billion in the last quarter, the company reported in July.
"Somebody's making a killing off of these people, and it needs to end," said Bates. "I've got people on fixed incomes that need to pay for it and budget for it, like everybody else.
"They've got to have it, and if it goes up, they're going to pay it, anyway," he added, receiving a standing ovation when he had finished.
Del. Steele told the PSC they would have to sit with their attorneys and those from the Legislature to solve the problem.
In January, Steele said, he introduced a bill that was supported 100 percent by Democratic and Republican lawmakers on the Government Organization Committee. The bill would have permitted the PSC to oversee internet service in the state.
"Not one person from Altice or Suddenlink ever came to my office to ask about that bill," he added. "No lobbyist ever stopped by.
"I'll tell you why. They knew we couldn't do anything about it."
Legislators later learned that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) regulates broadband, said Steele, and the bill was moot. Since then, he said, he has reached out to federal lawmakers for help.
Suzi Osborne, a Suddenlink customer, addressed the Suddenlink representatives. She said she came to represent the "thousands" who could not attend the meeting, including disabled and elderly West Virginians.
"(A lot of our elderly residents) they get their bill, it's paid, and that's what they've got to do," said Osborne. "They've always paid their bills. They're proud of that.
"We're a proud people. We stand strong. But you're robbing people.
"But the buck stops here. You guys have got to think, you're a monopoly in this area, and we're tired of it."