Verizon throttled California firefighters' internet speeds amid blaze

27 August, 2018, 15:01 | Author: Elena Summers
  • Utah firefighter Mathew Burchett. Burchett died Aug. 13 while fighting the Mendocino Complex fire north of San Francisco

Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato acknowledged, "In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us. We stand united and will work together to ensure this unsafe practice of throttling first responders will never happen again here in the Golden State". Under the department's plan with Verizon, speed caps might be hit if data use goes over 25GB before the monthly billing period ends.

Under the plan, Verizon said, the fire department was entitled to an unlimited amount of data but speeds would be reduced after the fire department exceeded its allotment. In today's new statement, Verizon apologized to the department and added it has lifted all throttling caps for those firefighters, along with the emergency departments that are now dealing with the effects of Hurricane Lane in Hawaii.

Just days before the Legislature is to consider a controversial net neutrality bill regulating internet service providers, a Verizon lawyer told lawmakers that those kinds of regulations are "very unrelated" to a recent incident in which his company slowed down data speeds for Bay Area firefighters actively battling a major fire.

The document included an email chain that showed that the fire department had been working with Verizon to solve the throttling problem before the Mendocino Fires started and that Verizon did not lift the data caps until the fire department paid for a more expensive plan.

The controversy began this week when a coalition of Democratic state attorneys general asked a federal appeals court to block the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) from overturning its 2015 net neutrality rules.

Net neutrality rules seek to prevent internet service providers and broadband carriers such as Verizon from favoring one website or service over others by granting unequal loading speeds, or by blocking or slowing content.

"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", Bowden concluded. Company executives did not immediately respond to questions about the forthcoming plan.

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Bowden said Verizon knew the data slowdown affected the firefighters' crisis response but did nothing.

State legislators are asking for a response from the Verizon CEO on a series of questions including, how many times, where and when, they have throttled the data technology of first responders during disasters.

As of August 13, wildfires across California had scorched more than 726,000 acres and destroyed at least 2,000 structures, Bowden said in his declaration.

"I really truly hope that what comes out of this is a greater partnership in moving forward, that this does not happen again to any public agency", he said. Instead, the fire department says a customer representative from Verizon urged the county to upgrade to a more expensive package.

The mobile command center described in the declaration, known as "OES Incident Support Unit 5262", was responsible for coordinating all the local government resources deployed to the Mendocino Complex Fire, Bowden wrote.

In his testimony, Bowden said the Mendocino Complex Fire was the third time since December 2017 where his department was throttled.

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