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Altice USA franchise agreement: Residents cite lack of broadband as Amenia considers renewal

AMENIA — These past few months, Harlem Valley residents have been relying on the world wide web to stay connected as they navigate life under COVID-19. For Amenia residents, however, securing high-quality internet has been an ongoing struggle. When the Town Board held its required (virtual) public hearing on the town’s franchise renewal agreement with Altice USA on Thursday, July 2, several residents tuned in to discuss their concerns and complaints about Altice’s services and the difficulties they’ve had accessing what they consider an essential utility.

Amenia first entered the franchise agreement in 2010 when Altice was previously known as Cablevision Systems Dutchess Corporation. As part of the agreement, the company agreed to provide cable service via a cable system within the town. Since then, Cablevision merged with Altice USA; the town is now looking to renew the agreement. 

At 7 p.m., the entire board met via Zoom (due to COVID-19), with Attorney to the Town Ian Lindars, Roger Connor, a consultant for Altice, and John Dullaghan, the director of government affairs for Altice, in attendance. Dullaghan will be the board’s contact for Altice going forward. The meeting was live streamed to the town’s YouTube channel, “AmeniaTV,” and the public was invited to dial in via Zoom or by telephone.

The need for broadband internet access is Amenia is clear, illustrated by the technical difficulties experienced that night when additional residents tried to join the Zoom meeting, as well as by those at the hearing who mentioned frequently having to borrow their neighbors’ WiFi to use the internet. 

“It’s my sincere hope that my neighbors in front of me… and my neighbors next to me will be able to get broadband because we are severely disenfranchised by the fact that we cannot, and we are all long-time residents,” Andrea Walton said.

With no fast internet at her home, Walton said she either has to drive up the road or go to her neighbors to communicate with others.

“I don’t want to change who it is that services me — I simply would like the opportunity to be serviced as I should be,” she said.

Emphasizing the importance of online access during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has forced people to work from home and students to school online, Barbara Meili said, “It’s absolutely essential to living in this town and working in this town to have broadband access. I don’t know any other way to say it: It’s like air; it is what the telephone meant in the early parts of the 20th century.

“It is impossible to conduct business or having a life in this town without broadband,” she continued. “The fact that we don’t have service… I find it hard to believe.”

Meili asked the board to get a written commitment from Altice to wire the town up in 90 days or else not sign the 10-year renewal agreement.

With the cost of cable service rising, one resident asked if the Town Board has sought competitive bids. Explaining that the franchise agreement is a major source of revenue for the town, town Supervisor Victoria Perotti explained that Amenia is a small market with limited service providers. 

Though he agreed the town is a small market, Councilman Damian Gutierrez said, “I 100% agree that it would be in the best interest of the town to have discussions with other service providers.”

Connor assured the community that all of the company’s franchises are non-exclusive while Dullaghan said that Altice is currently upgrading its system to bring broadband internet into more homes.

By 7:54 p.m., the board shifted to assessing written comments submitted by the public regarding the franchise agreement. Submitting his comments as a 40-year subscriber, former town Supervisor Wayne Euvrard expressed his disappointment in the cost of cable service and requested a discount for seniors, members or former members of the military, first responders and healthcare workers. Other written remarks addressed increasing service rates and their not being affordable; the need for more service provider options; and complaints about Altice representatives reportedly hooking up homes with WiFi without any results. Gutierrez reported that he’s conducted an informal survey of broadband bills in other locations and learned that, based on the company’s own quarterly report, Altice has the highest average revenue per user.

“It would be one thing if you were struggling and hurting,” Gutierrez said, “but you guys are clearly making a decent amount of money per user.”

Especially during the COVID-19 crisis, Gutierrez reiterated how essential broadband internet is and the challenges residents face not being able to afford or procure it.

“Understanding that you are essentially in all ways but in name a public utility, I would encourage you guys to think more responsibly about the role you play in this community,” he said to the representatives.

The virtual public hearing on the franchise renewal agreement will continue on Thursday, July 16, at 7 p.m. In the meantime, the board has asked residents without internet access to send their names and addresses to Town Hall so it can send the information to Altice.

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