Altice USA is negotiating with the state Public Service Commission to resolve what the state called "public health and safety crises" that resulted from the company’s missteps during Tropical Storm Isaias.
Thousands of Long Island customers complained of continued service disruptions weeks after the storm, and an inability to reach the internet, phone and video provider, which owns Optimum.
In a letter to the PSC filed Feb. 15, lawyers for the Long Island City-based company said it "anticipates settlement of all issues in this proceeding related to Altice’s preparation for and response to Tropical Storm Isaias."
The Department of Public Service previously had charged that the company’s response to the storm was "wholly inadequate," saying Altice "apparently failed" to follow its PSC-ordered resiliency plan relating to network planning, customer service and communications and government coordination. Shortly after the storm, the state ordered Altice to take a series of immediate steps to address what it called the "existing public health and safety crises resulting from the company’s delay in restoring service and to prevent any future delays."
The DPS, the administrative arm of the Public Service Commission, in a report on investigative findings released earlier this month found Altice "apparently failed to adhere to many significant aspects" of an agreement it reached with the PSC as part of the state approval of Altice’s acquisition of Cablevision in 2016. It issued a notice of apparent violation to the company on Aug. 19.
Failure to adhere to that merger agreement contributed to Altice’s "inability to timely restore service and effectively communicate to customers experiencing outages," the 2020 report found. Alleged violations included "failure to make sufficient readiness plans and post-storm restoration, poor customer service and communication, and inadequate communication and coordination" with local governments and electric utilities.
It's uncertain what measures — fines, reforms or both — the PSC will impose as a result of the settlement. James Denn, a spokesman for the PSC, said, "The commission awaits the outcome of the settlement discussions before deciding potential financial penalties."
A spokesman for Altice declined to comment on the settlement talks, but in a statement said, "Altice USA knows how important it is for our Optimum customers to stay connected, including during severe weather events, and we remain steadfastly committed to providing our customers with the reliable, high-quality service and support that they expect and deserve."
After the DPS investigation, the state agency ordered Altice to immediately implement a series of steps to resolve the problems, including plans to secure additional crews to help restore service; develop plans to work with local governments for emergency restorations; revise its plan to deploy and monitor power supplies, generators and backup generators so that its equipment could continue to work in the event of power outages; and establish a process to "ensure timely and accurate information to customers, the media and government groups" during restorations.
The report found that there were 369,917 customer outages immediately after the storm, peaking to a total of 439,000 by the day after. Most were caused by the lack of electricity, and were restored when electricity returned. Altice has around 3 million customers in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and parts of Pennsylvania.
The storm also damaged Altice equipment and led to outages that lingered for "many thousands" of customers well after power was restored. Altice reported to the state that full restoration was completed by Aug. 18.
But complaints about the company’s service went deeper, with elected officials and emergency management agencies complaining to the state that Altice’s staff and equipment to restore service was "severely lacking."
Elected officials reported being "overwhelmed by the level of constituent complaints" about Altice days after power was restored. At the time, the report says, Altice acknowledged failure of its Interactive Voice System, which is used to take information from customers to open service restoration requests. The company also acknowledged problems with its Optimum.net website that prevented customers from getting information about their service status.
"These failures caused an overwhelming number of complaints from customers without service to their municipal officials, and subsequent repeated complaints from elected officials … about Altice’s slow response and lack of an observed restoration or technician presence in many communities more than a week into the restoration."
Maureen Tumulty, an Optimum customer who lived in Miller Place during Isaias, on Thursday recounted her "infuriating" experience with Altice as "terrible," with little satisfaction even after service was restored after nearly two weeks. She said she submitted paperwork for a credit of just over $50. The company, she said, gave her one for just $17. "This is the most infuriating and inept company I have ever dealt with," she wrote in August.
"They have horrible customer service," she said Thursday, adding that when she was able to get through to call-center operators, they appeared to be "reading from a script," and could not help.
Tumulty, who has since moved to Washington, said the best remedy she can imagine for Altice is to pave the way for more competition
Separate from its findings about Altice, the DPS investigators "did not find apparent violations of specific" state regulations by rival, Verizon Communications and its FiOS service, the report says, though some officials raised concerns about the timeliness of Verizon’s repair, unclear credit policies and customer communications.
In a footnote, the report says "claims" by PSEG Long Island that Verizon’s lines were the cause of PSEG customer communications problems were "found to be generally without merit." PSEG early in the storm blamed capacity issues with Verizon telephone lines for customers’ inability to get through. LIPA, which is considering terminating its contract with its grid operator PSEG over storm failures, has instead blamed "management failures."