It’s been more than a month since Tropical Isaias plunged Westport into darkness — and hammered our internet service too.
Opinions of public utilities like Eversource — and probably-should-be-regulated-as-a-public-utility like Optimum — have moved from rage to simmering anger. An “06880” story earlier this month about the cable monopoly drew 160 brutal comments. No one defended them.
Readers across the tri-state area described harrowing encounters with Optimum and its owner, Altice. Most spoke as dissatisfied customers.
Richard Guha speaks as an industry executive.
He’s lived in Weston twice, most recently since 1996. He’s worked as president of Reliant Energy in Houston, one of the nation’s largest combination utilities. Before that he was chief marketing officer of MediaOne in Boston — now part of Comcast, and the first to launch “broadband” in the world.
Eversource and Optimum’s response after Isaias was “disastrous,” he says. While losing power, phone and internet service is inconvenient — particularly because many area residents lack adequate cell phone reception to begin with — it can also be life-threatening.
Guha himself had to drive someone to the emergency room, because he could not call an ambulance.
He cites one example, from Lyons Plains Road. From August 4 through 24, he had a long series of frustrating encounters with Optimum. From setting up an appointment for cable reconnection to technicians who failed to show up for appointments, then appeared without the correct equipment, Guha found customer service lacking at every level.
Multiply that by thousands, and the problem is clear.
Based on Guha’s own experience — and confidential interviews with service technicians — he offers a peek behind the cable curtain.
In a drive to cut costs, Guha says, Optimum has reduced equipment and staff to “a bare minimum.” It’s sufficient for regular maintenance, but not for unusual repair loads.
For example, a few years ago there were 150 bucket trucks in Fairfield County. Now there are 10.
While much of the initial disconnections resulted from or had the same causes as power outages, he says, the reconnection process has been “staggeringly poor, inefficient and dishonest.”
Customer service representatives were so overloaded that not enough were available to answer phone calls for any reason. (“This may also have been deliberate,” he says, “to shield them from customer anger, and then quitting.”)
Customers were forced to send online messages — a huge challenge without internet — which allows a single representative to deal with multiple customers. Responses were slow.
Representatives did not seem to have a full picture of what was happening. Or they were too overloaded to look. Or they simply deflected questions, by making up answers.
Service technicians told Guha that when someone contacted Optimum to set up an appointment, the representative simply promised a slot — “to get the customer off for a few days.”
Service techs were given calls to make with “little logic,” Guha reports. They were assigned too many calls to make each day. But there was no flexibility for them to call in and get reassigned.
Often the wrong equipment was sent to an address, even if the correct piece had been specified.
Eversource’s issues and inactions, meanwhile, are different. The best way to deal with power outages, Guha says, is to minimize them in the first place. Clearing trees and brush is the most important tool.
(Of course, much of Connecticut has too many shallow rooted trees, which are vulnerable to strong winds and rain. Guha suggests restrictions on tree planting in the state.)
When he was in the cable and energy businesses, most lines were laid in buried trenches. Trimming, however, was a priority.
It is expensive, and unpopular when it is happening. However, he notes, “over time it is more expensive to the local economy not to do it.”
Guha notes that putting in cables is also retroactive, particularly in wooded areas. However, he says, it pays the company back over time, in savings on maintenance and repairs. New technology can reduce the cost.
The biggest benefits lie in economic strength — and national security. “The vulnerability of infrastructure is extremely dangerous,” Guha warns, including health and risk to life.
Even at $1 million per mile, the cost of one F-35 would pay for 400,000 miles of trenching, he says.
He uses another military analogy. For Optimum and Eversource to cut their equipment so extensively is like the military saying, “We don’t need our tanks now, so we’ll get rid of them. If we have a war, we’ll get them back.”
Guha realizes that none of this is new. Everything he describes has been written about before.
Yet after every disaster, and every hearing, nothing happens.
“The same issue affects all physical infrastructure,” Guha says. “Whether it is roads, bridges, tunnels, rail, communication or energy, if it is not constantly improved, it steadily falls behind. Minimum maintenance is a recipe for disaster.”
Connecticut legislators have only limited immediate impact on utilities, he says. Regulators and franchising authorities have much more. However, “they often affiliate more closely with those they regulate than the customers they serve.”
Energy, cable and phone companies hire large staffs of regulator and government relations employees. Their job “is to get regulators to think the same way they do.
“They get paid to influence regulators, and can lose their jobs if they do not.
“They rarely lose their jobs.”
I heard there was an Optimum outage yesterday in Westport. Did anyone experience this?
Dan, good piece but I believe there is a typo related to trenching lines. Each new F35 costs approximately $100 million to manufacture, so it would theoretically pay for 100 miles of underground lines, not 400,000 miles.
The not so obvious question with Optimum and Eversource is for example
Where are the profit dollars going?
The systems and services are shrinking by over 50 percent in delivery guaranty, customer service and maintaining system performance. However the prices charged for the delivered products have increased at levels that are over 10 times the rates of inflation and more.
These two facts show that these two private monopolies are either wasting money at rediculous rates, suffering from inept management or making unjustified and obscene profits with the blessings of state and local governments!
No one is watching the chickens while the foxes are feasting in the coup!
Re tree trimming, has not everyone noted the enormous amount of Eversource-sponsored tree work being done over the past several years? (Typically with at least two cops earning overtime on each site to add to the cost passed on to the public.) The problem is, it doesn’t seem to make any difference in a major storm like Isaias, when entire trees are uprooted or broken in two. Insofar as “restrictions on tree planting in the state” — is this some sort of joke? I doubt even one in a thousand of the trees felled by the storm were planted by a human, and even those were probably planted a century ago,
Optimum’s repair service — bad as it is — isn’t the main issue, but rather that the company has a virtual monopoly on high speed internet here — and their coaxial cable technology relies on Eversource power to every one of their pole-mounted green circuit cabinets.
So, when power goes out on your street so does Optimum. Even if you have a generator powering your in-house equipment, you get zero Optimum internet and zero Optimum voice service.
Back in the 1990s, SNET invested heavily in their own fiber optic and coaxial infrastructure to compete with Optimum, but much of it was left to rust after SBC (now AT&T) acquired them in 1998.
The final nail in the coffin of viable internet competition was Frontier’s 2014 acquisition of the former SNET. Heavily debt burdened at the time, and now bankrupt, Frontier should never have been allowed by CT regulators to make the acquisition. But…Frontier is based in CT, and the one thing in which they invested heavily was — you guessed it — political contributions!
So when you hear your state politicians huff and puff about how they’re taking on the big utilities, ask them:
“How much money did you, and others in your party, take from Frontier and AT&T?”
Restrict planting trees, really? We moved to the suburbs to live in nature, not to see ugly poles in front of our homes without coverage. As a European I’m always struggling why it seems so unimaginable / prohibitive to put cables underground. Yes, it costs money. But that’s one time. There’s hardly any town in Europe that is not connected to an underground grid. With storms, Europeans are not suffering through endless days without power and internet. In the US, we will experience more and more extreme storms every year. Is everyone really resigning to CHANGE the status quo. In the most recent PURA hearing I heard Senator Will Haskell’s demand for real change and to question the role of PURA. Citizens should step up and demand that permanent change from their representatives.
Thanks Mr. Lemcke, I’ve pointed out the same about Europe. The answers to your post is covered in comment below yours, in short, who has should be protecting your health & life?
Mr. Guha, thank you for getting your neighbour an emergency room and for speaking out. I have tried to point out the same points and more but your direct experience inside these ‘utilities’ gives you the standing I don’t have. Its obvious wires need to be separated from the trees is just the first step. The underlying problem It’s how large businesses operate. Simply put when a company like Altice buys a company like Optimum they slash costs and all services to pay for it. Who ends up paying for it are the customers. That might be an accepted strategy in business but it is not acceptable when those public services are potential health and life-threatening. I appealed to my legislators to empower the regulators but you point out the next hurdle; lobbying the regulators. It appears to me that PURA is not empowered or independent enough to do the job it needs to do to protect health & life.
Utilities including cell/cable need to be held accountable & responsible nationally. As long as Washington protects business over citizens you are correct the legislators can’t help us, the regulators can only appear to justify the rate increases, and we will all live in the wild West-on. VOTE!
While the examples of ongoing maintenance issues are all valid observations, the “elephant” in each of these industries is insufficient competition. When “monopolies” are allowed to be created, the “incentive“ to maintain excellence is removed…..competition (in any industry) forces the business model to be better at everything (technology development, customer service, customer satisfaction etc..)! We are paying outrageous monthly fees, for mediocre to poor services. Who’s advocating for us? Wake up elected officials, and remind them who they are actually working for….then maybe something would happen to change these business models. COMPETITION, at a minimum is what’s needed to change what’s in play here.
Great article, Dan. Informative and sobering. I hope all the rage—mine included—ends up making these utilities more useful.
I send my thanks to both Eversource An Optimum for their hard speedy An continual work handling the storms. Mark Errico
If we actually care about these public services we’d pay a premium to bury all wires, all of them, even if it costs taxpayers money. This is the capitalism you all asked for, so this is the service we all get. Enjoy your investment returns instead.