NJ Division of Rate Counsel requests further investigation of Optimum/Altice USA following March 16 public hearing

April 1, 2021

By: Tyler Eckel

Read the NJ Rate Counsel report here

Led by the considerable efforts of Robbinsville and Hamilton Townships, the State Division of Rate Counsel has formally requested the NJ Board of Public Utilities (BPU) “proceed with an in-depth investigation to assess the functionality and capabilities of the Company’s network/infrastructure and its business practices.”

The report, dated March 23, 2021, follows a March 16 hearing where more than 100 elected officials, attorneys and members of the public took Optimum/Altice USA to task for its service, network reliability, pricing and other business practices.

Per the report, “Rate Counsel notes that Altice reached a $72 million settlement in New York to improve storm resiliency which included $3.4 million in credits to New York customers. Rate Counsel stands ready to work with the Board, the Company, the townships and other parties and stakeholders in a process that allows the Board and parties to discuss specific regulations; metrics; best practices; and examine the cause(s) of the service quality and customer service issues raised by customers, to assist in the development of a plan that provides a path in ensuring that safe, functional and reliable service is restored and maintained. This action will allow the Board to make an informed decision and issue targeted directives to assist Altice in resolving service issues and eliminating the apparent unfair business practices throughout its service footprint.”

The BPU designated Commissioner Mary-Anna Holden was the Presiding Officer and is authorized to rule on all motions in order to “secure a just and expeditious determination of the issues.”

The public hearing was held virtually. In addition to the Townships of Hamilton and Robbinsville, the boroughs of Dunellen and Sayreville, along with the Townships of Green Brook, Howell, Jackson, Montville, North Brunswick and Piscataway held Altice’s feet to the fire.

The BPU received complaints and resolutions from at least 10 municipalities and several state legislators concerning various issues their residents and constituents cited alleging inadequacy and lack of service provided by Altice USA. In the complaints, the municipal and legislative officials cited: “Frequent and lengthy service disruptions (across all services), inconsistent connections and fluctuating Internet speeds, long telephone wait times, poor customer service, and an inability to get a satisfactory response to these issues from the company both before and after the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Representatives from Mount Olive perhaps summed up the reason for the hearing best by saying: “We all can’t be wrong … and we can’t keep having it (this type of service) from Optimum.”

One municipality threatened legal action if Optimum does not improve its level of service, while other elected officials called for an independent – not internal – investigation. Many asked the NJ BPU to issue Optimum/Altice USA a formal ruling of non-compliance.

For it’s part, Optimum government representative Marilyn Davis continued the company mantra of blaming the COVID-19 pandemic for the vast majority of complaints, however most of the elected officials given three minutes to speak, or via their submitted testimonies, dismissed that tired narrative by stating Optimum’s poor performance “predates COVID-19 by several years.”

Mayor Fried’s submitted March 16 statement reads:

“It is the duty of Optimum/Altice USA to furnish safe, adequate and proper Internet and cable television service for its customers. As a leading utility in the region, they have fundamentally failed in that duty.

Robbinsville Township, along with other municipalities with a vested interest in this hearing, should not have to continuously pressure this provider to do its job. We understand these have been challenging times from a bandwidth, load, and connectivity perspective with so many employees working from home and students learning remotely during the pandemic. Robbinsville is certainly sympathetic to that. However, the myriad of problems our constituents have encountered pre-date COVID-19 … by several years. The pandemic only helped elevate these issues toward the surface so they could garner the attention they deserved.

In 2016, the New Jersey Board of Public Utilities Approved the Altice-Cablevision Systems Corporation Merger. The May 25, 2016 news release contained a heading: ‘Settlement to provide improved services and products for customers.’

The Merger Settlement was supposed to provide protections and improved services for customers that included, among other things, maintaining efficient customer service levels and network upgrades. The NJ BPU went on to state: The Board is confident that the settlement will provide current customers many network improvements and upgrades, as well as ensure adequate levels of customer service are maintained.

As the NJ BPU has been made aware by the numerous customer complaints submitted to its attention and my fellow municipalities submissions, there is a serious question as to Altice’s required obligations to its customers.Like all the elected officials participating in this hearing, and with the support of NJ Congressman Christopher Smith in Washington, I will fight for my residents by partnering with as many towns as necessary in order for these concerns being taken seriously by the NJ BPU. I have also taken the unprecedented step of inviting private Internet Service Providers to Robbinsville with the opportunity to build their in-home internet and Wi-Fi infrastructure in select sections of the Township. I opened my firehouse every week during the depths of the connectivity issues so my residents, many of whom were waiting several days for a repair appointment or even a call back, could go to school and work remotely. It had become almost impossible for my staff to keep up with the amount of phone calls and email complaints which stifled our municipal offices. If we do not band together and force the NJ BPU to hold Optimum/Altice USA accountable, they are going to leave these proceedings and nothing is ever going to get better. In fact, it could get worse with increased pricing that is in no way commensurate with the quality of the services provided.”