By James M. Odato
A new broadband oversight czar in state government on Wednesday accused Charter/Spectrum of improperly crediting itself 1,800 addresses toward its mandated buildout to underserved and unserved internet users in New York.
In a letter to Charter’s lawyer, Rory Lancman, the Public Service Commission’s special counsel for ratepayer protection, said if the company doesn’t correct the record he will go to court to force Charter to prove the addresses are valid.
Lancman, who started in the newly created position on Nov. 4, revealed in his letter to Maureen Helmer that the company is also obstructing a long-running audit by the state to monitor Charter’s compliance with a July 2019 settlement. That settlement allowed Charter to continue operating in the state and to avoid banishment as proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo for failing to honor prior commitments. Cuomo appointed Lancman, a former Democratic assemblyman from Queens, to make sure consumers are not shortchanged by Charter, or any other company, as the governor pushes for 100 percent broadband service statewide.
Charter, which also operates as Spectrum, is required to add 145,000 New York addresses to its high-speed broadband network in places that have been left behind, often because of the difficulty to connect and the expense of running cable to an out-of-the way location. Remote areas of the Adirondack and Catskill parks have been among the losers in the service expansions of companies concerned with return on investment. Charter has no choice in the matter, however, if it wants to continue operating in New York, Lancman said in an interview.
Last month, the Adirondack Explorer reported that Charter had taken credit for several rural Adirondack connections that residents had actually paid to obtain. The company reimbursed the owners when the problem was discovered, but it led local officials to wonder if other connections in the park might be unjustifiably added to Charter’s list.
In his letter on Wednesday, Lancman alerted Helmer, who served as chair of the PSC during Gov. George Pataki’s administration, that Charter had 10 days to acknowledge 1,816 addresses are ineligible. He also called for a “top-to-bottom” review by Charter of all the addresses it credits for itself by February 2021.
“Staff has identified approximately 1,816 addresses it determines to be ineligible for inclusion in the 145,000 network expansion obligation and should therefore be immediately removed from Charter’s POR (Plan of Record),” he wrote. The PSC staff identified 1,557 addresses as being outside Charter’s service area. Lancman said those may be cheaper or more profitable to connect. Another 259 addresses are in areas where the state provided grants through its Broadband Program Office. As a result, Charter has no right to those credits. He said Charter has improperly credited itself in several Adirondack counties, such as 187 ineligible hookups in Washington, 79 in Hamilton, nine in Oneida and three in Franklin.
Lara Pritchard, a Charter spokeswoman, said in an emailed statement that the company is ahead of schedule.
“We plan to respond to the claims in the PSC’s letter in due course,” Pritchard told the Explorer. “The fact is that in Charter’s s September 30 update to the PSC, we confirmed we have extended the Spectrum network to more than 123,800 Upstate homes, and remain ahead of schedule to reach 145,000 locations by September 2021. In fact, we not only exceeded the September 30 target of 110,760 locations, but we have surpassed the January 31, 2021, milestone target of 122,173.”
Lancman said the PSC doubts the company’s numbers. He said Charter has made independent verification “very difficult” because state auditors must use Charter’s own data and it is filled with misspellings, wrong or incomplete addresses and other mistakes.
He said he doesn’t think Charter is guilty of willful violations of its agreement with the state, but given its history of failing New Yorkers, the Cuomo administration cannot be forgiving.
“Our analysis bears out that Charter and Spectrum have been exaggerating the number of new passings, and we are very concerned that we will get to the point that Charter will declare its expansion to 145,000 new addresses to be concluded even though it hasn’t done that,” he said.
He said he is unsure of what Cuomo will do when asked to sign legislation passed in June to require the state to hold hearings and create a map showing the gaps in broadband service. He emphasized that in the two weeks he’s been at the PSC he has been impressed with what the staff is doing to monitor companies. “We have to be careful not to duplicate or interfere with their work,” he said. “I think the department has a really good handle on the allocation of broadband access.”
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Town of Lewis Supervisor James Monty, who complained to the PSC this summer about Charter counting hookups it didn’t deserve in his town, said he hasn’t heard back from the commission. But eight homeowners who paid for connections to Charter in 2016 have recently received reimbursements from the company because of his complaint.
He said he is pleased to hear about Lancman’s advocacy. “If they are actually doing something I think it’s a great thing,” he said.