Firefighters monitor a backfire while battling the Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex Fire, near Ladoga, Calif., on August 7, 2018.
Photo: AP

Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday pressed the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over its response to Verizon’s throttling of firefighters’ data speeds as they battled a major wildfire in Northern California.

The Santa Clara County fire chief, Anthony Bowden, declared last week that Verizon’s decision to throttle the communications of firefighters at a crucial command center during one of the state’s largest wildfires had a “significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services.”

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Bowden said that Verizon, whom the country fire department had paid for “unlimited data,” hobbled the first responders’ ability to communicate “despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services.”

In a letter Friday, Senator Edward Markey and Congresswoman Anna Eshoo demanded answers from the FCC over what steps it is currently taking to address “critical threats to public safety,” citing its decision to repeal Obama-era net neutrality protections.

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The 2015 Open Internet Order—overturned by the FCC’s Republican majority last winter—reclassified internet providers like Verizon as common carriers under Title II of the Federal Communications Act, granting the FCC regulatory authority that, in this instance, would have allowed the commission to investigate and potential penalize Verizon for impeding first responders.

At Chairman Ajit Pai’s direction, the commission abdicated that authority this year. It no longer has the power to establish rules prohibiting Verizon from throttling emergency services, or charging police and fire departments additional fees to maintain their communications at optimal speeds when usage peaks—say, during a wildfire, or an earthquake, or a mass shooting.

“The FCC has incorrectly suggested that the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) could sufficiently fill this void,” wrote Markey and Eschoo, whose congressional district includes portions of Santa Clara. “We strongly disagree with that assertion.”

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The FCC did not respond to a request for comment.

Ernesto Falcon, legislative counsel at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, explained why the FTC could not fill the FCC’s shoes, noting in a blog post that the FTC cannot act proactively:

While proponents of repealing net neutrality will argue the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) can manage this specific issue of transparency (they are right to a limited extent), they ignore the most critical differences between FTC power and the now-repealed FCC power. The FTC can only do something after the fact and nothing more. Meaning, in a literal sense, after the fire. And then if this came up again in another state, the FTC would have to wait until after the fire burned there. Notably, the FTC can’t ban throttling and upselling during an emergency.

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In their letter, the Democratic lawmakers urged the FCC to make use of its Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau and investigate the matter, saying that while the FTC may find Verizon’s actions exemplify an “unfair and deceptive practice,” both agencies should use “all of the tools available” to resolve this public safety matter.

“To do nothing is unacceptable,” they said.

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