Verizon Throttled California Fire Department's Data Speeds During Wildfire Response [Updated]
Verizon recently throttled the data used by a Santa Clara, California fire department that was in the midst of fighting wildfires, reports Ars Technica. Verizon’s actions were outlined this week in an addendum to a brief filed by 22 state attorneys challenging the recent repeal of net neutrality rules.
According to Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden, the fire department paid Verizon for “unlimited” data, but its data speeds were heavily throttled while it was combating the still-ongoing Mendocino Complex Fire until the department shelled out more money for an upgraded unlimited plan.
Verizon’s data throttling policies affected “OES 5262,” a fire vehicle with a Verizon SIM card that is responsible for acting as a “command and control resource” for “the rapid deployment and organization of thousands of personnel and hundreds of fire engines, aircraft, and bulldozers.” Data speeds were reduced to 1/200, interfering with the vehicle’s ability to “function effectively.”
Santa Clara Fire communicated with Verizon via email about the throttling and requested that it be “immediately lifted for public safety purposes,” but Verizon staff demanded the fire department update to a new plan before service could be restored.
Verizon representatives confirmed the throttling, but, rather than restoring us to an essential data transfer speed, they indicated that County Fire would have to switch to a new data plan at more than twice the cost, and they would only remove throttling after we contacted the Department that handles billing and switched to the new data plan.
As Ars Technica points out, even when net neutrality rules were in effect, major carriers imposed throttling during times of network congestion. The fire department claims, however, that it was throttled at all times (not just at peak congestion) once the vehicle’s 25GB data limit was exceeded.
Net neutrality rules also allowed for Internet users to file complaints for unjust or unreasonable prices and practices, but the complaint option has been eliminated, giving Santa Clara no options for contacting the FCC over Verizon’s practices.
Bowden said that Verizon’s throttling had a “significant impact” on the fire department’s ability to provide emergency services. The Mendocino fire was also not the only time Verizon’s throttling limited fire services, with other incidents occurring in December and June.
According to Bowden, the Santa Clara Fire Department believes that Verizon is going to continue to use catastrophic events to force public agencies into higher-cost data plans.
In light of our experience, County Fire believes it is likely that Verizon will continue to use the exigent nature of public safety emergencies and catastrophic events to coerce public agencies into higher cost plans ultimately paying significantly more for mission critical service-even if that means risking harm to public safety during negotiations.
After a long series of emails (PDF) with Verizon, the Santa Clara Fire Department was ultimately required to purchase a data plan that costs $99.99 per month for the first 20GB of data usage and $8 of data per gigabyte afterwards to avoid throttling during emergencies.
Update: Verizon provided the following statement to The Verge:
This situation has nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court. We made a mistake in how we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan. Like all customers, fire departments choose service plans that are best for them. The customer purchased a government contract plan for a high-speed wireless data allotment at a set monthly cost. Under this plan, users get an unlimited amount of data, but speeds are reduced when they exceed their allotment until the next billing cycle.
Regardless of the plan emergency responders choose, we have a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations. We have done that many times, including for emergency personnel responding to these tragic fires. In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us. This was a customer support mistake. We are reviewing the situation and will fix any issues going forward.
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