The City Council is going to come up with a plan of action in response to complaints about poor local service by the cable and internet giant Suddenlink.
Councilman Andre Knight had the subject of Suddenlink added to Monday evening's council regular meeting agenda.
After the item was brought up near the end of the meeting, Councilman Reuben Blackwell said this has been a persisting issue for him for a number of years.
"And it's getting worse," Blackwell said. "I don't know what's up with the current Suddenlink management, but their team seems to not be responsive at all to customer concerns.
"People are having to wait for weeks for service."
Blackwell is the president and CEO of the Opportunities Industrialization Center, which seeks to help provide residents with employment training and health care.
"We've had several issues at OIC with people being inconsistent at Suddenlink about coming out and servicing, not taking responsibility for things that they did, having service interrupted and dropped, according to whoever is around using devices," he said.
Blackwell said he has received a number of calls and complaints about Suddenlink, but he also made clear he would like to hear other stories to get a complete picture of what is wrong.
Blackwell said clearly his point is people are paying a lot of money for service and, with humor, he said a monthly cable bill from Suddenlink resembles a monthly property rental bill.
"But I think we deserve better service than this — and I think the General Assembly needs to do something," Blackwell said. "They've protected their interests. Who's protecting our interests?"
"Amen," Mayor Sandy Roberson said.
Politically conservative-dominated General Assemblies in North Carolina in more recent years have been supportive of major communications companies.
Moments earlier in the discussion, Knight told his fellow council members a problem is many people who work in their homes for safety reasons due to the coronavirus pandemic are experiencing instances of internet service going down.
Knight said some employees' supervisors are telling their employees if they cannot work in their homes due to a lack of access to the internet, then they are going to have to resume doing their jobs at those companies' offices or work sites.
And Knight cited what he called "exorbitant rates and fees" and long wait times after customers ask Suddenlink to provide technical support.
Knight also said some areas still do not have access to the internet.
Roberson said he, too, has heard a number of complaints about Suddenlink.
Roberson also said he has been asked by a number of mayors in municipalities close to Rocky Mount having similar issues to join them in petitioning state officials in Raleigh about the matter.
Roberson asked City Manager Rochelle Small-Toney whether she has any kind of informal information about challenges she has logged as complaints with the municipality about Suddenlink.
"Oh yes, we receive complaints quite a bit," Small-Toney said.
Small-Toney said she could not remember the name of the office in Raleigh where such complaints are referred, but she said a local government in North Carolina "no longer has the opportunity to be as active as you have in the past."
Small-Toney told Roberson and the council, "I guess the lobbying efforts of the cable franchises cut you out of that process — and, unfortunately, at the local level there isn't much more you can do, other than just refer the complaint to Raleigh."
Small-Toney said she believes what probably would be a good idea or suggestion is to have a conversation with the state legislative delegation from the Rocky Mount area to see exactly what can be done.
Roberson said he wanted to explore signing a petition, but he said he believes such action would be strengthened by a resolution by the council.
"Yes," Blackwell said.
Councilman Lige Daughtridge, who is a businessman, also said in economic development, there are many opportunities, but he made clear one of the things that could hinder Rocky Mount in the future is not having adequate service.
Daughtridge said his company, although small, had to spend money on a setup ensuring rapid internet service and noted this was a huge investment.
Daughtridge said he is certain others had to do the same because of the need to survive in today's environment.
"And that's what we had to do — and I'm sure other companies and, unfortunately, the residents don't have that same opportunity," Daughtridge said.
Daughtridge said he would not only welcome a resolution, but also a delegation going to Raleigh and whatever else the city can do in the form of action.
And Daughtridge said of what the city can do, "You don't know until you try."
Knight told of customers having to pay bills of anywhere from $230 to $300 just to be able to watch television and have access to the internet.
Knight also asked Small-Toney about getting a contact phone number from someone in Raleigh that the city can directly communicate complaints to in the meantime.
The Telegram on Tuesday sought comment via email from Ashwin Bhandari, who is communications manager of Suddenlink's parent company, Altice USA.
Bhandari issued a statement saying, "Suddenlink has a longstanding relationship with Rocky Mount and we remain committed to delivering the best service and support to local residents and businesses.
"We will be in touch with the City Council to address any concerns as we continue to deliver high-quality service and support to the area," the statement said.
The Telegram reported on Jan. 1 that Tarboro town officials, via a letter by Mayor Joe Pitt, asked state Attorney General Josh Stein to investigate the business practices of Suddenlink and Altice USA.
Pitt said in the letter that while service issue complaints have been ongoing for years in Tarboro, COVID-19 has exposed the scope of problems of both the infrastructure and service delivery of Suddenlink.