BUCKHANNON – Suddenlink is eager to renew its franchise agreement with the City of Buckhannon, but governmental officials aren’t feeling as enthused about the connection.
At Buckhannon City Council’s meeting Thursday, mayor Robbie Skinner said Suddenlink, a subsidiary of Altice USA, had sent the city a letter on Sept. 8, 2020 expressing interest in renewing its franchise agreement in Buckhannon when the agreement expires June 30, 2023.
Skinner said in light of a pileup of complaints about Suddenlink’s service made by city residents and the recent letter – which says Altice USA wants to continue its operations in Buckhannon – he had scheduled a TV Cable Board meeting for 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 30 in council chambers.
Suddenlink Communications operates as a subsidiary of Altice USA, providing cable TV, high-speed internet, mobile telephone and security services. Altice USA is headquartered in Long Island City, N.Y.
According to the Sept. 8 letter, officials with the telecommunications company say the Cable Communications Policy Act of 1984 and the Cable Television Consumer Protection Act of 1992 mandates that Altice USA notify the city of its intent to seek franchise renewal 30 to 36 months prior to the expiration of the current franchise.
“We received our notification of franchise renewal for Altice USA, and Altice is the parent company of Suddenlink,” Skinner said at council’s Sept. 17 meeting. “Many of our council members, and myself as mayor, as well as employees here at city hall have all received several concerns regarding Suddenlink and the service that’s here.”
“As mayor of the city, I am by default the chair of the Cable Board, and I have called for a Cable Board meeting to take place on the 30th of this month at 6:30 p.m.,” he added. “I would encourage the public, if they have concerns about Suddenlink, to send those via correspondence to City Hall here, to call city hall or to plan to attend that meeting.”
The meeting agenda, which was included in the Sept. 17 packet, includes items pertaining to service and response time issues reported by residents and the franchise renewal notification.
In the September letter, Erin Jones, director of government affairs for Altice USA, writes that the federal law “allows the parties to reach a mutually beneficial agreement for franchise renewal through formal or informal negotiations.”
Noting the city and Suddenlink engaged in an “informal” negotiation process prior to the previous renewal, Jones writes the company wants to utilize the same process this time around.
“We seek to reach agreement using the informal process again for the upcoming renewal,” Jones wrote.
Councilman Jack Reger questioned whether negotiations should be informal or formal.
“What would be the difference between an informal [negotiation/meeting with Altice] and a formal negotiation?” Reger asked. “I don’t think we need to let these guys off the hook.”
City attorney Tom O’Neill said federal law governing telecommunications companies provides two pathways to franchise renewal.
“There’s a formal process and an informal process,” O’Neill explained. “They’re trying to use the informal process, but we have the ability to kind of formalize that. Before the council makes a decision on which track we want to go down, let me make a report back at the next meeting about what is involved in each one of those, and then the council can take that and make that decision.”
Councilman Dave Thomas said he thought Suddenlink’s service had deteriorated significantly since a buyout several years ago in which Suddenlink was acquired by the European telecommunications and mass media company Altice.
“I think the whole (cable) industry is in disarray now,” Thomas said.
Skinner noted cable providers are struggling to compete with a vast array of online streaming services.
Thomas asked if an Altice USA representative would attend the meeting, and Skinner said probably not.
“I doubt it,” he said. “The reasoning behind the meeting is, we received the notification and because of the service issues that have piled up, I believe we need to work through those that evening.”
Channel 3 plans to film and possibly live-stream the meeting, and anyone wishing to participate in person, may attend at city hall, although the governor’s executive order limiting gatherings to 25 people or fewer is still in effect. Questions and comments during the meeting may be submitted to email@example.com.
Members of the city cable board include Duwane Squires, Joey Slaughter, Tim Smith, city recorder Randy Sanders, Skinner and city attorney Tom O’Neill, who is a non-voting member.
According to its agenda, on Thursday, the Upshur County Commission is set to hear the first reading of an ordinance that would renew Suddenlink’s franchise, but that can’t happen until after a public hearing, which is set for Oct. 22, 2020.