Verizon Throttled Firefighter Data during California Wildfire

August 27, 2018 - 5 minutes read

Verizon recently throttled the data connection that firefighters were relying on during an emergency fire response effort in Santa Clara, about an hour outside of San Francisco.

Anthony Bowden, the Santa Clara County Fire Chief, expressed his disappointment in Verizon in an official statement: “This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services. Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services.”

Hiking Rates Up When It Matters Most

Bowden’s statement was added to the pile of evidence in a lawsuit filed by 22 state attorneys general, Washington D.C., Santa Clara County, Santa Clara County’s Central Fire Protection District, and California’s Public Utilities Commission. The lawsuit, brought against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is aimed at keeping net neutrality alive.

Verizon throttled the fire department’s data connection until the department approved a more than 100% increase in their bill; it raised the plan’s price from $37.99/month to $99.99/month.

One particular fire vehicle demands more data than others because it serves as a command and control base during emergencies: the OES 5262. It’s used in “tracking, organizing, and prioritizing routing of resources from around the state and country to the sites where they are most needed,” according to Bowden.

Endangering Innocent People

This time, the OES 5262 was deployed to California’s largest wildfire ever, the Mendocino Complex Fire, with its Verizon SIM card for Internet connectivity. However, alleges Bowden, “In the midst of our response, [we] discovered the data connection for OES 5262 was being throttled by Verizon, and data rates had been reduced to 1/200, or less, than the previous speeds. These reduced speeds severely interfered with the OES 5262’s ability to function effectively.”

Thereafter, developers at Santa Clara County Fire Department got in touch with Verizon, who “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,” says Bowden.

Setting a Standard

This wasn’t the first time Verizon throttled the fire department’s data connection, with emails showing problems starting back in December. When asked to comment, Verizon said, “Regardless of the plan emergency responders choose, we have a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations. … In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us. This was a customer support mistake.”

And, the company added, this “situation has nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court.” But Santa Clara County disagrees, saying, “Verizon’s throttling has everything to do with net neutrality.”

Net neutrality has been a hot topic of debate across the nation for more than a year now. We’re proud to say that California was one of the first states to start its own bill in April after net neutrality was repealed in December. We strongly advocated for support of the California net neutrality bill, and we continue to push hard for reinstatement of net neutrality.

Net Neutrality Matters

Simply put, net neutrality protects internet freedom. Without it, internet service providers aren’t required to give every website equal treatment. Under the current law, companies like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast can slow your connection to certain sites if you haven’t paid for the right package. And, in this particular scenario, the results can be disastrous and potentially life-threatening.

It’s important for everyone who uses the internet, regardless of political affiliation, to champion for reinstating net neutrality. While California’s bill is one of the most comprehensive and serves as a great template for other states, we need to advocate for net neutrality as a nation.

Freedom isn’t free, but not fighting for what’s right could cost much more — especially in cases like these. What do you think of the actions Verizon took in this crisis? Let us know in the comments!

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