Verizon throttled California fire department data during wildfires

By Michael Grothaus

August 22, 2018

The mobile provider throttled the data of a Santa Clara, California, fire department as members were risking their lives trying to stop the wildfires raging across California, reports Are Technica. The data throttling came to light in an addendum to a brief challenging the recent repeal of net neutrality rules filed by 22 state attorneys.

The throttling affected a “command and control resource” fire vehicle with a Verizon SIM card. Its data speeds were reduced to 1/200th of normal, which interfered with the vehicle’s ability to “function effectively.” When Santa Clara Fire Department contacted Verizon to lift the throttling, Verizon staff insisted that the fire department would need to change to another data plan with a higher data allowance, as Santa Clara County fire chief Anthony Bowden wrote:

“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.”

Bowden continued:

“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.”

Before net neutrality was repealed, carriers could usually only throttle data once a customer had gone over their limit during times of network congestion, but Santa Clara Fire Department says their data was throttled at all times. For its part, Verizon issued the following statement once the story broke:

“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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