The Pikeville City Commission held a public hearing and unanimously approved a resolution during its meeting on July 27 that found Suddenlink to be in violation of its franchise agreement with the city.
The approved resolution provides the costs of damages that the city will require Suddenlink to pay for each violation on each day they are found in violation of the agreement. Pikeville City Attorney Rusty Davis said the total charge to Suddenlink each day could total about $1,500 for violating the agreement. If Suddenlink chooses to dispute the charges and refuses to pay them, the case could eventually be taken to federal court, though that has not happened yet.
The resolution was adopted after a public hearing, which the City Commission was required to hold before the general meeting on July 27 and before deciding whether Suddenlink was in violation of its franchise agreement.
During the public hearing, Davis cited about 10 sections of the franchise agreement, that he and other city officials believe Suddenlink has violated, as reasons why he recommended that the City Commission approve a resolution to find the company in violation.
Some of Davis’ reasons included the company failing to provide the services for which customers were paying, forcing long wait times on customers when they seek assistance for repairs or other issues, not providing proper refunds or credit for service interruptions and failing to provide proper documentation for finances and insurance required by the agreement, among other things.
Regarding the company’s failure to provide quality services to its customers, Davis explained that this was in direct violation with the franchise agreement, which was approved through an ordinance by the city.
“They failed to comply with Section 22-A of the ordinance, which states that Suddenlink shall put, keep and maintain all parts of its system in good condition throughout the entire franchise period,” Davis said.
He said the city confirmed this violation through a survey that it commissioned in April, following an open forum the city held in February this year with Erin Jones, director of government affairs for Suddenlink owner Altice USA. Davis added that the city never received a response from Suddenlink after the forum regarding a promise to fix their system and address the public’s concerns.
Davis then discussed the results of the city’s survey. According to Davis, the survey ran from Feb. 19 to May 24 this year, and 337 customers responded to it. By citing some of the responses from the survey, he said it shows Suddenlink’s violation of the franchise agreement.
“It clearly shows that the public is not satisfied with their service in a number of different ways,” Davis said, regarding the survey. “The survey reports that 85 percent of Suddenlink’s customers in the city have experienced service interruptions in the last six months. In light of the multiple service interruptions that Suddenlink’s customers in the city have experienced, Suddenlink has failed to put, keep and maintain all parts of its cable system in good condition throughout the entire franchise period.”
Davis said Suddenlink has failed to make repairs in a timely manner and has violated its agreement with the city because it causes service interruptions without just cause.
Regarding long wait times for calls, he said the company has violated the franchise agreement by not answering customers’ calls within about 30 seconds, which is stated as a requirement of providing service in the agreement with the company. Many customers in the city reported in the survey that they have had to endure long wait times when calling Suddenlink for assistance.
“The city manager has received numerous calls about the wait time for Suddenlink, and I’m sure that you folks have all probably heard the same thing,” Davis said. “I’m a Suddenlink customer. I don’t think I’ve ever made a call that I got a live person within 30 seconds. It’s one of those deals where you have to plan to take an hour to call in and put your phone on speakerphone until the music quits playing and you get somebody that comes to you and finally tries to work on your problem.”
According to the survey, 55 percent of Suddenlink customers in the city ranked their cable service, including signal, sound and picture quality, by the company either “very poor” or “poor,” and 53 percent of customers in the city believe Suddenlink’s cable and Internet services to be unreliable.
He added that, since 2015, the company has not provided any prior notice or reasoning when making substitutions, additions or deletions to its cable programming, and city officials have received numerous complaints from unhappy customers regarding the changes to their cable programming.
He said that 313 of the 337 total survey responses came prior to March 18, the day after Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order closing many public-facing businesses and other facilities due to COVID-19.
“However, the survey, by its nature, is examining activity that took place months before COVID-19 restrictions and limitations of public activity took place,” Davis said.
He addressed a criticism from Suddenlink about the survey, in which the company criticized the validity of the survey and questioned its reliability. Davis explained that the survey was commissioned through Survey Monkey, a global survey software company.
“Survey Monkey is a leading global survey software company which offers a highly-recognized and award-winning search engine which utilizes social media to engage customer satisfaction, market research, performance evaluations and feedback,” Davis said.
Davis described various other violations that city officials believe Suddenlink has made throughout its franchise with the city, and he noted that, according to the survey, only 7 percent of customers in the city received credit or refunds for service interruptions.
“Basically, it’s my recommendation and I feel like the city manager’s recommendation that you issue a resolution stating that because of their failure to comply with the ordinance and these numerous sections that I’ve read multiple times, you find them and the fault of their obligation in violation of the franchise agreement,” Davis said. “The ordinance we propose would direct the mayor to send, by certified layover and return receipt requested, a competent resolution with written notice to Suddenlink to pay the liquidated damages.”
Although the public was invited to attend the hearing, only one member of the public came out to the hearing. Representatives of Suddenlink and Suddenlink owner Altice USA were not present.
City Manager Philip Elswick said the representatives sent them comments regarding the issues they could not address in-person at the hearing, including documentation they allegedly claimed was in alignment with the required documentation for the franchise agreement.
Davis, however, addressed the paperwork they sent the city officials, saying that it was not in alignment with the agreement. He also addressed he comments the company made in their letter to the city.
“Some of their letters, the disturbing thing has always been that, in their letter to you folks, they don’t admit that they have any failures at all, other than one report where they said they would modify the revenue report,” Davis said. “Everything else, (they’re saying), ‘They’re good as gold. They’re not violating their ordinance. Your survey was wrong. These people that have complained, they never call us.’”
Davis also said during the hearing that Suddenlink representatives requested for the public hearing to be postponed due to a travel ban related to the COVID-19 pandemic. He questioned those requests, adding that he, the city commissioners and other city officials could attend the hearing that day.
“We’re here; you guys are here to take your time,” Davis said. “They probably travel when they want to when travel is not easy, but this is hugely important. I would think it’d be hugely important to their company, the possibility of these damages and assessments. Anyway, they had the opportunity, and they chose not to be here, although I understand it’s difficult.”
During the Pikeville City Commission meeting, which took place directly after the hearing, the commission unanimously approved a resolution that found Suddenlink to be in violation of its franchise agreement with the city.