News

Fires: Choked data remains an issue

Anthony Bowden, chief of the Santa Clara County Fire Department, testifies before the Assembly's Select Committee on Natural Disaster,Response, Recovery and Rebuilding. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

As California’s largest wildfire moved swiftly, the internet speed in the area slowed to a crawl: Verizon choked it down to the first responders battling the Mendocino Complex blaze.

Assemblyman Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, says a new law is necessary to protect first responders’ access to high-speed internet, although Verizon acknowledged the move and quickly apologized.

Levine, who heads the Assembly’s Natural Disaster Response, Recovery and Rebuilding Committee, said he appreciated Verizon’s actions, but said there’s no guarantee that the company won’t change its plans again. Access to high-speed internet is critical for firefighters in an emergency, he said.

The firefighters’ internet speeds were throttled while they were combatting the biggest wildfire in California’s history.

“Water agencies don’t turn off the fire hydrant when a fire department goes over their plan,” he said. “Getting access to information about how to contain fires and how to protect lives and homes is the same as water for those firefighters,” he added.

Too late for lawmakers to craft legislation this year, the issue is likely to emerge in 2019.

Verizon throttled back firefighters’ internet speeds in July after they exceeded data limits in their plan. The company said it is introducing a new plan with unlimited data that public safety agencies can upgrade to at no additional charge. Verizon also promised that in the event of another disaster, it will lift such limits on public safety customers and provide full network access.

The firefighters’ internet speeds were throttled while they were combatting the biggest wildfire in California’s history.

The action came to light in a federal court filing made by Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden in a net neutrality case. “The throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services,” he said. “Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services.”

In the midst of fighting the blaze, the firefighters learned that their data was reduced to 1/200 or less than previous speeds, even though they thought they had an unlimited data plan.

Santa Clara County Fire Department captain Bill Murphy said this wasn’t the first time Verizon throttled back during an emergency.

The fine print of the plan, however, said that their data speeds would be reduced after they went over a certain data limit. When firefighters complained to Verizon, customer service representatives “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 said in the court filing.

In the meantime, the firefighters had to use other agencies’ internet service providers or their own personal devices.

“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 said.

Santa Clara County Fire Department captain Bill Murphy said this wasn’t the first time Verizon throttled back during an emergency.

U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo, Nancy Pelosi and 11 other Northern California congressional representatives sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission calling for an investigation.

It has happened three times since December, he said.

“The broader issue is not only are we relying on [the internet] for routine digital communications, but the public is relying on us to communicate that way as well,” he said, adding that the department provides a tremendous amount of information to the public during a fire, including evacuation maps, which roads are open and closed, and more.

Mike Maiorana, Verizon senior vice president of public sector, said in a statement that Verizon is sorry for its actions. “In supporting first responders in the Mendocino fire, we didn’t live up to our own promise of service and performance excellence when our process failed some first responders on the line,” he said.

Verizon representatives offered their apology in person to an assembly committee hearing called by Levine on the matter Aug. 24 in Sacramento.

That same day, U.S. Reps. Anna Eshoo, Nancy Pelosi and 11 other Northern California congressional representatives sent a letter to the Federal Trade Commission calling for an investigation into whether Verizon engaged in deceptive business practices by throttling an unlimited data plan.

“It is unacceptable for communications providers to deceive their customers, but when the consumer in question is a government entity tasked with fire and emergency services, we can’t afford to wait a moment longer,” they wrote. “The FTC must investigate whether Verizon and other communications companies are being unfair or deceptive in the services they’re offering to public safety entities, and if so, to determine what remedies are appropriate to ensure our first responders have adequate service when lives are on the line.”


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