When is an ISP rate hike not a rate hike?

I have a love / hate relationship with our internet service provider, Frontier Communications. On the one hand, it’s amazing that we can even get a legit broadband connection here; we live on two wooded acres in a remote rural valley, surrounded on all sides by National Wildlife Refuge. Fifty megabits downstream may be laughable in suburban areas, but it’s heavenly compared to what’s available to many of our neighbors. I’m genuinely grateful.1

On the other hand, I hate that our provider has no real competitor. With no other game in town, Frontier has little incentive to improve its network. In fact, when we first bought our house, the best connection Frontier offered delivered less than 3Mbps. Only after we organized a neighborhood petition and recruited our senator’s office did Frontier prioritize upgrades to our local infrastructure.

You might expect Frontier’s local monopoly to impact service rates, as well. After all, there’s no real market pressure to keep their pricing strategy in line. But honestly, I’ve been pretty happy with the price I’m charged for broadband. Sixty bucks a month for a 50Mbps connection is highway robbery in the city, but I’m willing to accept that it’s more expensive to serve rural households.

Just this past year, though, Frontier has started to play fast and loose with its billing scheme. They haven’t changed our base rate—that’s still $59.99 per month. But they have tacked on a phantom fee: an “Internet Infrastructure Surcharge,” which started at $1.99 per month and recently doubled.

By labeling it an “infrastructure surcharge,” Frontier makes their fee sound like some government-imposed. That’s not the case; Frontier invented this surcharge out of thin air. As far as I can tell, this is their way of raising customer’s rates without raising the “sticker price.” That’s deceptive, consumer-hostile behavior—perhaps a way to stem the financial bleeding?

Here’s the thing: despite all this, I’m sympathetic to our ISP’s sorry state, and I’m rooting for them to pull out of their apparent death spiral. I’m even willing to pay a bit more to help them survive. I’d just rather see them hike their rates honestly, instead of slipping in a bogus charge and hoping that customers don’t ask questions. ■

  1. When Frontier rolled out VDSL locally, I immediately signed up for the fastest connection they could offer—50Mbps download and 5Mbps up on a good day. Since then, I’ve made it a quarterly habit to ask Frontier if they’ve provisioned our local loop for even faster speeds via VDSL. The dream, of course, would be for Frontier to roll out FiOS in our area, but given our rural neighborhood and Frontier’s financial woes, I’m not holding my breath. ↩︎