City council votes 5-2 to renew TV/cable franchise agreement with Optimum

BUCKHANNON – Buckhannon City Council on Thursday voted 5-2 to renew a 10-year nonexclusive franchise agreement with its TV cable, phone and internet provider, Optimum.

By a majority vote, council renewed the franchise agreement – scheduled to expire June 30, 2023 – for a decade from July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2033.

At the June 15 council meeting, former state senator Clark Barnes, now a government affairs specialist for Orion Strategies who handles public relations for the telecommunications company, said Optimum, operated by Altice USA, “has made West Virginia a strong partner.”

“We’re glad to be here, and I know that any of us that have had cable TV service in the past under the name Suddenlink have had some experiences, and I certainly would not deny that,” Barnes said. “But what has happened is, Optimum has spent several million dollars in the state of West Virginia and upgrading the cable systems, the fiber systems internet and has made West Virginia a strong partner.”

“We want to continue serving the residents of Buckhannon, and we will continue to do the best we can, and that’s based on the fact that we’re doing better already,” he added.

Mayor Robbie Skinner noted that the Upshur County Commission had already renewed their nonexclusive franchise agreement with the company – which was then still Suddenlink – in 2020 for five years. He said the chance of attracting an alternate provider is minuscule.

“I think it’s also important to note that this is a very small area, population-wise, and it’s not increasing, and so the likelihood of having multiple carriers in this geographic area is not going to happen,” he said. “We’re not going to have multiple providers in this area for folks to choose from; it’s just not practical, so I would ask folks to keep that in mind as we work through this exercise.”

Skinner said it appears Optimum has vastly improved its service.

“I think we can all appreciate the leaps and bounds that Suddenlink – now Optimum – has taken to improve their service in the area,” he said. “We all can remember our phones ringing off the hook as council members and here in City Hall and all the negative feedback that we received from folks with cable service. We’re not receiving those now at all; folks are seemingly much happier.”

“I feel good about renewing the franchise, and I hope that we can continue a good partnership, and I hope that Optimum can continue to make necessary improvements in our area to serve customers,” Skinner added.

Councilman CJ Rylands acknowledged that counties and municipalities have little ability to regulate the rates and quality of service TV/cable providers supply. Still, he said he planned to vote against the renewal as a symbolic gesture.

“I supply cable and television service to one apartment, and I got the bill the other day, and it was $193,” Rylands told Barnes. “That’s more than the electric bill and the water bill combined. Prices keep going up, and I don’t recognize any positive impact on the service provided to myself and my business.”

“I know that we’re stuck between a rock and a hard place and that me voting no or not supporting this isn’t going to change really anything, but I’m also not going to sit here and be complicit with something I don’t agree with,” Rylands said. “I appreciate that you’re here and you’re communicating with us, but I don’t support this in any shape or form.”

Councilwoman Pam Bucklew said people in the area are still frustrated that they can’t reach a customer service representative by phone but instead have to drive to Optimum’s office on Fifth Street to talk to an Optimum employee.

“I get a lot of complaints about people not being able to make a local phone call and get ahold of the cable company and that the majority of the time, you’ve got to get in your car and go over there,” Bucklew said. “This is a small town, and people like to talk to somebody and not get put on the back burner.”

Barnes said there is no local call center in Buckhannon, but a West Virginia Call Center was established in 2022 in Teays Valley.

Bucklew also took issue with telecommunications companies continuously raising rates.

“It seems like the prices get raised every three, four, five or six months, and a lot of people who are on a fixed income can’t afford that,” she said.

Skinner said more people utilizing streaming services and unsubscribing from their local cable providers have fueled rate increases.

“It costs the company the same to deliver the service to the same geographical area whether you have three customers or 3,500 customers, so the more people that drop Suddenlink or Optimum cable service and go the streaming route, then the cost of that cable is going to continue to keep going up,” the mayor said.

Skinner said over the past year, he’s looked into whether a town Buckhannon’s size “could even entertain the possibility of another telecommunications company.”

“The answer is no,” he said. “Our population is aging, not growing.”

Councilman David McCauley said it’s frustrating that there’s no local contact for Optimum as there has been in the past.

“We had people we could go to locally, and those problems would be pretty readily, pretty quickly resolved,” McCauley said. “Altice, one of the biggest telecommunications companies in Europe, owned Suddenlink, and they also own Optimum. Just for clarification, Clark, things were so bad with Suddenlink that the enterprise had to be rebranded and renamed, isn’t that correct?”

Barnes nodded.

“The $2.2 million fine that was issued by the [West Virginia] Public Service Commission was a wakeup call,” he replied.

In early 2022, the PSC issued a ruling fining Suddenlink $2.24 million and ordered it to open a West Virginia Call Center.

In contrast to earlier comments, city recorder Randy Sanders said he’d had an overall positive experience with the TV/cable provider and that sometimes, service problems result from outdated or faulty equipment. Councilman Jack Reger agreed.

“I would suggest to folks that do have problems — connectivity problems – don’t be hesitant to turn your old equipment in and get new equipment,” Sanders said. “It gets upgraded all the time and gets reconfigured all the time.”

Sanders made a motion on first reading to approve Ordinance 464, which renews the franchise agreement; the motion was seconded by Reger. Council voted 5-2 in favor of the ordinance, with Rylands and McCauley voting against it. Subsequent readings will occur Thursday, July 6 and Thursday, Aug. 3.

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