NEW JERSEY – At least 11 municipalities called for action during a state Board of Public Utilities hearing over poor performance and customer service by Altice, the French-owned cable conglomerate that operates the Optimum brand.
Among the Ocean County communities represented at the six-hour hearing were Jackson, Toms River, Seaside Heights, Seaside Park and Lavallette. They joined other municipalities such as Howell in Monmouth County and communities in Middlesex and other counties.
The hearing included two representatives from Altice. It was designed to address ratepayers’ concerns. Various municipal officials, town attorneys and citizens said they were looking for concrete actions from Altice to improve the performance of internet service as well as their customer service.
Lawanda Gilbert, the director of the board’s office of television and telecommunications introduced the president of the board, Joseph Fiordaliso who said, “this matter was initiated based on numerous complaints to the board from many Altice/Optimum customers and elected officials throughout the state regarding their quality of service.
“These services are essential for the residents of New Jersey. The Board is very concerned about the level of performance by Altice,” Fiordaliso said. He added the input from the hearing would guide the Board in determining “the appropriate actions to take going forward.”
The complaints included frequent and lengthy service disruptions across all services, inconsistent connections, long telephone wait times, poor customer service and an inability to get a satisfactory response to these issues both before and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Altice representatives Marilyn Davis, the senior director of government affairs at Altice USA, and Mike Alexander, senior vice president of the field operations team, were present for the hearing.
Davis said the company has 900,000 residential and business customers in New Jersey in more than 200 municipalities. “Altice is committed to ensuring that all our New Jersey customers receive reliable service. As a result of the pandemic and other events 2020 presented many unique and unprecedented challenges for Altice as it did for other companies and individuals across the nation.”
She said the company added to its investment in the state to meet its commitments. “We recognize that some of our customers experienced frustration with engaging with our customer care organization or due to network performance issues, broadband demand with the sudden shift to remote learning. We regret any frustrations resulting from our services.”
Davis promised to follow up on any customer service issues raised by those who spoke during the hearing who provide their information to the BPU. She also said that the company added personnel to address the numerous customer complaints that were received by phone and tools to interact with the company outside of the phone including online messaging. “These investments have yielded real results.”
Many municipal representatives and customers testified that the service problems they experienced pre-dated the start of the pandemic and despite their complaints to the company spotty service and other problems continued.
Jackson officials filed two complaints to the BPU last year. The first was filed in October and after hearing nothing back from Altice, a second complaint was filed in December. Both complaints called for action plus a partial refund to customers as they had not received the service they should have.
Attorney Gregory McGuckin, who represents Toms River and Jackson townships, said that Jackson has roughly 60,000 residents serviced by Altice. “These service complaints pre-date Covid. This service is not only the result of the pandemic.”
McGuckin said Altice service in Jackson had worsened since 2016, “We will be filing with the board approximately 150 pages of complaints from residents regarding the service of Altice. There must be a full investigation in this matter as to what Altice is doing or not doing in the communities they serve.
“We urge the commissioner and the board to require Altice to conduct an internal investigation to report on whether they are meeting their remedial obligation in accordance with the administrative code. Only they can provide that information. I would simply add Toms River Township has three service providers in our community. You’ll notice we’re not here for Verizon. We’re not here for Comcast. We’re here only for Altice and there is a reason for that,” McGuckin said.
The attorney added, “while Comcast and Verizon faced their own challenges, they managed to overcome them in this state and in the communities they represent. Altice is a completely different situation.”
Jackson Council President Andrew Kern said, “within two weeks of asking our residents to voice their complaints for this hearing we received over 130 e-mails which will be submitted to the Board. For television, customers suffer the loss of signal or the screen becomes pixelated and customers need to reboot their cable boxes over and over. TV programs are only partially recording because the cable was out at that time. There has been loss of channel with the guide saying information not available.
“For internet, residents suffer the complete loss of internet or Wi Fi, not connected to the internet and customers need to reboot both their router and modem throughout the day with a loss of internet at hours at a time. Internet speeds are not what they were advertised,” he said.
Howell Councilwoman Pamela Richmond commented, “Altice has approximately 15,000 customers in Howell Township. Starting before the COVID-19 pandemic our residents have raised substantial complaints about Altice’s internet and cable service as well as its customer service. These complaints have only worsened since the inception of the pandemic.
“The service got so bad and the complaints so numerous that in the fall of 2020 Howell created a forum for residents to submit their complaints about Altice online. The township has since received over 700 complaints,” Richmond said.
She added the complaints ranged from “long service blackouts and slowed internet speed, and customer service wait time. This poor level of service for our residents is unacceptable. It is also imperative that the residents of Howell and those across New Jersey have quality internet and cable service. Such services are essential especially in the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Attorney Jean Cipriani represented Seaside Heights and Seaside Park at the hearing. “Both boroughs join in on the comments that have been made including the fact that these service problems predate COVID and they have been an intensifying factor in many areas. It is not the reason for the service problems.”
She added, “the mayors of Seaside Heights and Seaside Park have both been advocates for their residents making many, many personal calls. Ms. Davis has been very responsive but the answers to the problems aren’t there and are not solved.”
Ciprianni said two problems that Seaside Heights has is security cameras that are located on all streets “that the police and residents rely on. Unfortunately, approximately a third of those cameras do not work on a reliable basis due to connectivity and service issues. That is a different aspect of the failure of technology due to the problems caused by Altice’s lack of commitment to service and to the infrastructure.”
She also noted that customers are receiving service charges that were supposed to be removed but never are removed from their bills. “There is a breakdown at every level of service with this company. Like many towns, this is the only service in town for these services and as long as that remains the case the advantage will be taken.”
BPU Commissioner Mary Anna Holden said “a transcript that will be produced from this hearing will be made part of the record and all comments will be taken into consideration when deciding action in this matter.”
Anyone with an individual complaint of service was asked to log it at the board’s website bpu.nj/gov and click on the ‘file a complaint’ tab. Questions about the hearing and its outcome can be e-mailed to board.secretary@BPU.nj.gov. The docket number CX21020139 should be included in the subject line of the e-mail.