Ex-FCC counselor says the agency ‘abdicated’ its public safety role

A former counselor to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman under President Obama said on Monday that the agency under President Trump “abdicated” its role in public safety, citing connectivity issues during last year’s massive California wildfires. 

“Verizon was throttling the Santa Clara Fire Department’s broadband, and there was eight months of communication between the fire department and Verizon, saying ‘look, we’re in the middle of this huge fire, at the time, was the biggest fire in California history, the Mendocino Complex Fire, please don’t throttle us. We need this to communicate with the public, and with other first responders,’ ” Gigi Sohn told Hill.TV’s Krystal Ball and Saagar Enjeti on “Rising.” 

“Basically Verizon said if you pay us double of what we’ve been paying before, we’ll stop throttling you,” she added. “The fire department had no place to go, and that’s what’s really important here.” 

“People argue, well, that’s all they paid for so they deserve to be throttled, it’s not really a net neutrality problem,” she said. “But it’s [an] oversight problem because the FCC has abdicated its role protecting consumers and competition, and public safety, the fire department had nowhere to go.” 

Verizon admitted in August that it mistakenly throttled the Santa Clara County Fire Department’s data while they battled the Mendocino Complex Fire, which is the largest fire ever recorded in California.

The telecommunications company said in a statement to Hill.TV on Monday that the situation with Santa Clara County during the fire did not have anything to do with net neutrality, and said the company has taken steps to prevent future incidents from taking place during emergencies. 

“The Santa Clara situation had nothing to do with net neutrality. We made a mistake in failing to follow our own practice to waive data restrictions when the issue first came up. Once we learned of our mistake, we took steps to ensure that, regardless of the plan they’re on, first responders will not encounter data restrictions during times of a declared emergency. In addition, we introduced a new plan for first responders that does not include restrictions,” spokesman Richard Young said.

“We’ve long been committed to an open internet and we stand by that pledge. And we’re equally committed to providing reliable services to public safety users, especially during times of emergency. While the plan at issue here was permitted under the 2015 rules (and is still permitted today), we’re working with users to provide them multiple options to best fit their needs,” he continued. 

The FCC did not immediately reply to a request for comment from The Hill.

Santa Clara County, which includes San Jose and Silicon Valley, joined with 22 states and the District of Columbia last year in requesting that a federal appeals court make the FCC reinstate its 2015 net neutrality rules under the Obama administration. 

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit heard oral arguments on Friday from both sides of a lawsuit brought against the FCC. 

— Julia Manchester

Updated at 1:17 p.m.

Featured clips