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.”