Verizon says it shouldn't have throttled fire department's data amid Calif. wildfire

Verizon says it shouldn't have throttled fire department's data amid Calif. wildfire

Verizon said it made a mistake when it throttled a California fire department’s data usage as it was battling the largest wildfire in the state’s history.

In a statement on Tuesday, Verizon said it normally lifts restrictions on data during times of emergency and would be reviewing why it didn’t when requested by the Santa Clara County Fire Department in June.

“This customer purchased a government contract plan for a high-speed wireless data allotment at a set monthly cost,” the company said in the statement. “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.”


“In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us,” Verizon added. “This was a customer support mistake. We are reviewing the situation and will fix any issues going forward.”

Santa Clara County fire chief Anthony Bowden said that the department had contacted Verizon to complain about the throttling but was told the throttle would be removed if the county switched “to a new data plan at more than twice the cost.”

In a sworn statement included in the filing on Monday, Bowden said his crews’ data were throttled to less than half a percent their normal download speeds under the Verizon plan due to high usage while fighting the Mendocino Complex Fire, which is the largest fire ever recorded in California and is still raging today.

Bowden said Verizon was told that the restriction was severely affecting the department's ability to coordinate and track their resources.

“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 wrote in the filing.

Ars Technica previously reported Santa Clara’s allegations.

Santa Clara County, which covers San Jose and Silicon Valley, joined with 22 states and the District of Columbia earlier this week in asking a federal appeals court to make the Federal Communications Commission reinstate its popular 2015 net neutrality rules.

The rules, which the agency voted to eliminate in December, prohibited internet service providers from blocking or slowing down websites, or from creating paid fast lanes. Under the Obama-era rules, broadband companies like Verizon were designated as common carriers, meaning that they had to treat all service equally.

“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,” Verizon said on Wednesday. The company, along with competitors like AT&T, has been an outspoken critic of the net neutrality rules.

Bowden, however, appears to think that the incident shows broadband companies need stiffer regulations.

“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,” he said in his court statement.