Cal Fire personnel observe the Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex Fire, on August 7th, 2018 near the city of Ladoga, California.
Photo: Noah Berger (AP)

Verizon throttled the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s supposedly “unlimited” data plan while the agency was fighting the record wildfires that have burned over one million acres of the state, Ars Technica reported on Tuesday.

According to the report, Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden brought up the throttling in an addendum to a multi-state legal brief seeking the overturn of the Republican-controlled Federal Communications Commission’s decision to throw out Barack Obama-era net neutrality rules. Bowden alleged that Verizon had throttled a SIM card connecting a fire department mobile command vehicle named “OES 5262” to 1/200th of its normal speed, putting lives and property at risk, and that the company’s support team refused to lift the restrictions until fire officials purchased a new data plan at “more than twice the cost.”

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Ars Technica wrote:

“County Fire has experienced throttling by its ISP, Verizon,” Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden wrote in a declaration. “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.”

Bowden’s declaration was submitted in an addendum to a brief filed by 22 state attorneys general, the District of Columbia, Santa Clara County, Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District, and the California Public Utilities Commission. The government agencies are seeking to overturn the recent repeal of net neutrality rules in a lawsuit they filed against the Federal Communications Commission in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

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The vehicle in question also coordinated “all local government resources deployed to the Mendocino Complex Fire,” Bowden wrote, cumulatively using “5-10 gigabytes of data per day via the Internet using a mobile router and wireless connection.”

According to Bowden, County Fire IT staff verified the connection was being throttled, which “severely interfered with the OES 5262's ability to function effectively.” When those staff reached out and said the throttling was impacting public safety, Verizon customer support personnel confirmed they had deliberately limited OES 5262's connection, but that it would only be restored if County Fire switched to a more expensive plan and contacted the billing department.

As a result, fire personnel were forced to use other departments’ service providers as well as their personal devices until County Fire paid up. Bowden wrote those personnel were deployed to help fight the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest in the state. The Los Angeles Times reported this week that fire is extremely hazardous to the nearly 3,500 firefighters currently fighting it, with Draper City, Utah fire department Battalion Chief Matthew Burchett dying this month while trying to help contain the blaze. In general, the blazes across the state have increasingly exhibited extreme behavior like immense fire tornadoes. Adding a service provider dispute to this situation is indisputably not helpful.

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Bowden further alleged that Verizon knew full well what it was doing and took advantage of the situation to “coerce” County Fire into paying more:

While Verizon ultimately did lift the throttling, it was only after County Fire subscribed to a new, more expensive plan.

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.

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In a statement provided to Gizmodo as well as Ars Technica, a Verizon spokesperson wrote that the company “made a mistake in how we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan,” which was a “government contract plan for a high-speed wireless data allotment at a set monthly cost.”

The spokesperson wrote that while the plan offers “unlimited amount of data... speeds are reduced when they exceed their allotment until the next billing cycle”—though they added that Verizon maintains “a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations” and the incident was a “customer support mistake.”

Verizon also stated that the matter had “nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court.”

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It’s true that throttling a plan that goes over its data limits isn’t necessarily a net neutrality issue per se. The Obama-era rules didn’t prohibit data caps; they prohibited service providers from artificially slowing down or blocking specific content in a discriminatory fashion, whether it’s to limit their customers’ access to rival services or just charge extortionate fees to access certain content. But Bowden’s argument appears to be that County Fire’s experience with Verizon led him to believe they are quite willing to do just that to emergency personnel.

“Please work with us,” a fire official wrote to Verizon on July 30th, according to documents filed with Bowden’s addendum. “All we need is a plan that does not offer throttling or caps of any kind.”

[Ars Technica]

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