ISP Monkeybrains cries foul over coronavirus fees after requesting more bandwidth. Zayo says it was all a mistake

Presumed pandemic profiteering may be just confused staff

Analysis Earlier this week, Monkeybrains, a San-Francisco-based internet service provider, asked ZayoGroup, a communication infrastructure biz based in Boulder, Colorado, to temporarily upgrade a network circuit from 2Gbps to 10Gbps.

According to Rudy Rucker, one of the co-founders of Monkeybrains, this involved a single router-level command by Zayo that would have required about 15 minutes of work by a network engineer.

Monkeybrains had requested an increase for the circuit's bandwidth, as part of normal operational growth, four months ago and never got a response. Now, amid a coronavirus pandemic that's forced people to work from home and telecommute, network usage has risen 30 per cent, and Rucker said the circuit was being pushed to its limit.

To get its request through, Monkeybrains was prepared to pay $2,000 a month for the next three months, based on a price quoted last September.

In an email thread provided to The Register, Zayo's sales rep answered, "Regarding the temporary upgrade from 2G to 10G, the only temporary options we have are to either process the temp upgrade for a 6-month minimum contract, or a 3-month contract, with a $5,000 expedite fee if it's COVID related."

Dumbfounded, Alex Menendez, co-founder of Monkeybrains, responded, "You guys are profiting on COVID? Won't that be a bad press thing for Zayo?"

And the sales rep doubled down: "Due to the overwhelming requests we have received related to COVID-19 and limited resources internally, our business has deemed this the best way to filter through the request while also maintaining top-end service for business-as-usual orders."

Rucker and Menendez were shocked, and via Twitter accused Zayo of pandemic price-gouging, something that's illegal in California and about half the other US states during a time of emergency.

"We think it is crazy that operators like Monkeybrains, Sonic, and even Comcast and AT&T are saying we will not turn people off during the pandemic and we will invest in capacity on our dime," said Menendez in an email. "Meanwhile, Tier 1 providers are trying to profit from this humanitarian tragedy."

Tier 1 providers are trying to profit from this humanitarian tragedy

When The Register inquired about Monkeybrains' claim, a spokesperson for Zayo insisted fees for expedited service are a norm in the industry, and that the infrastructure provider doesn't have a policy of charging more for service requests associated with the COVID-19 coronavirus.

"The communications industry has a standard practice of providing customers the ability to expedite their delivery by paying an expedite fee," the communications outfit said in an emailed statement.

"Costs are often higher when an installation is expedited due to higher contractor costs, overtime pay, and priority shipping expenses. Consistent with this industry practice, Zayo has our own long-standing procedures for providing customer requested expedites."

"Zayo has maintained these standard procedures during the crisis, and many customers have used these procedures to accelerate the turn-up of much needed bandwidth. We are reviewing the application of these standard procedures to ensure that they are used only if and when appropriate during the crisis."

Zayo said internet connectivity is a critical service and customer demand has skyrocketed during the global health crisis, noting that employees have remained on location in data centers and in the field to maintain customer networks.

According to Menendez, "We have never been charged expedite fees."

After Monkeybrains provided The Register with a copy of the abovementioned email thread involving a Zayo salesperson, we asked Zayo for further clarification, because the email certainly reads like COVID-19-specific pricing.

It's all in the wording, apparently

Zayo's spokesperson called us to acknowledge the emails should not have been worded that way. We were told the employee responsible was relatively new and inaccurately linked the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak with the infrastructure provider's policy for expedited work.

There is no policy at Zayo for any incremental fee related to the bio-nasty, the company's spokesperson insisted, and made an effort to highlight the recognition the business has received from other customers during what for everyone is a difficult time.

The infrastructure outfit even posted a COVID-19 response statement last week, offering assurance that it is committed to supporting its customers during the outbreak.

Taking Zayo's statements at face value, the affair looks less like callous profiteering than a variant of Hanlon's Razor that might be worded as: "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by organizational ineptness."

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It also underscores the different communication styles of small companies run by founders – who speak their minds and are accustomed to moving quickly – and of large firms that are less adaptable, less open, and more prone to problems keeping everyone on the same page.

The unfortunate aspect of this miscommunication is that both organizations have never been more necessary and could have benefited from an ongoing relationship during what's likely to be a rocky economic period.

Rucker and Menendez said residential service is booming but also noted that 17 Bay Area businesses cancelled their accounts in the past week. Zayo, while insisting it hasn't seen any slowdown, expects some customers will be negatively affected by the health crisis and may have difficulty making payments.

Rucker said ordering from Zayo has been "a nightmare" and noted that he has deployed multiple technicians to install a $6,000 Siklu antenna to backhaul bottlenecked traffic to a different fiber point-of-presence. "In the long run, this makes our network stronger," he said.

Even so, he expressed concern that Zayo would blackball his company for speaking out, and asked for a contact at the infrastructure provider to route around its insufficiently responsive sales process and perhaps smooth things over. ®

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