Verizon Accused Of Throttling California Fire Department’s Unlimited Data As They Battled Wildfires

Dan Steinberg / ASSOCIATED PRESS

Verizon Wireless stands accused of throttling the California Fire Department’s unlimited data while they worked to battle raging wildfires. An action which they believe would have been prevented if net neutrality rules had remained in place.

According to a report from Ars Technica, the shocking details were part of a larger lawsuit with a goal of reviving net neutrality federally after its recent repeal. In all, 22 state attorneys general, the District of Columbia, Santa Clara County, Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District, and the California Public Utilities Commission joined together to file the brief on behalf of their states, regions, and cities. The lawsuit names the Federal Communications Commission, and the group filed it in the District of Columbia Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals.

According to the Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden, “County Fire has experienced throttling by its ISP, Verizon. 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.”

The addendum to the lawsuit contained a series of emails between the fire department and Verizon showing that the throttling on the department’s devices continued until they upgraded their plan paying as much as two times their old plan. Until the department upgraded their plan, the data speeds remained reduced. The situation occurred starting June 29, which was just a few weeks after the FCC’s repeal of the old rules went into effect.

The throttling caused issues with the department’s mobile command center vehicle, “OES 5262,” which is used to “track, organize, and prioritize routing of resources,” according to Bowden. The vehicle uses a Verizon SIM card to provide it with internet access, and the department used it to work the Mendocino Complex Fire. Because of the reduced data speeds, the vehicle was unable to function as it should during the emergency, and the fire department was forced to rely on other department’s ISPs or their own personal devices to work the emergency situation.

In a statement, Verizon said that the situation with the Santa Clara County Fire department had nothing to do with net neutrality and that it resulted from a series of things, including a miscommunication about the terms of the department’s service plan. Additionally, Verizon said, “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.”

While the fire department believes that Verizon took advantage of an emergency situation to push a more expensive plan and make more money, Verizon denies that charge. Ultimately, Bowden and the lawsuit claim that Verizon risked public safety for profits during the largest wildfire in the state’s history, and now it appears as if the courts will end up deciding if their accusations have merit.