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 Department 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 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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Top Rated Comments

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19 months ago
Verizon doing what Verizon does. At least they are consistent no matter who the customer is.
Rating: 76 Votes
19 months ago
Maybe Trump can do us a favor for once and go after these crooks. Oh wait...
Rating: 57 Votes
19 months ago
Allowing companies to advertise "unlimited" where they get to redefine that word however they like is FRAUD, plain and simple. It always has been, and this is not a net neutrality issue -- it's a false advertising one.
Rating: 51 Votes
19 months ago
Verizon Unlimited*

*not unlimited.

Now that their abuse of the English language cost lives and property, will they pay a price?
Rating: 43 Votes
19 months ago
Wow, this is just evil. I.e. standard practice for most massive corporations.
Rating: 42 Votes
19 months ago
Some corporations just want to watch the world burn.
Rating: 37 Votes
19 months ago
"A house is burning down, let's ****ing handle payment afterwards, and just let me fix this ****"

"Put the flames on pause and give me them juicy credit card details already!"

What is wrong with this world?
Rating: 34 Votes
19 months ago
See nothing wrong with this. This is business. If you want to prevent this, have redundant data providers and do not blow through your data. If you do, understand the consequences of those actions. If you know you are going through 22GB of data in a "command center", then make it part of your day 0 or day 1 action plan in a crisis to upgrade the plan. It is a flip of a switch on Verizon's end so all it takes is a phone call.

California wants an exception. Then Canada wants an exception. Then Joe down the streets wants an exception. Good on Verizon for standing their ground.

Also this has nothing to do with Net Neutrality, so why even bring it up? This would not have been "prevented" even if Net Neutrality was still in place.
Rating: 28 Votes
19 months ago

100% the fire department's fault.

Verizon literally admitted it was their fault. There is an established procedure for removing the throttling during emergencies. The fire department followed the procedure. Verizon didn't.
Rating: 26 Votes
19 months ago
Verizon's response doesn't matter. The concept of broadband "data caps" in 2018 is laughable.
Rating: 25 Votes

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