Verizon throttled California firefighters’ Internet speeds amid blaze (they were out of data)

In a statement , Verizon said it had “made a mistake in how we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan.”

Firefighters monitor a backfire while battling the Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex Fire near Ladoga, Calif.

As the largest fire on record in California continued to carve its destructive path through the northern part of the state, firefighters sent a mobile command center to the scene. With thousands of personnel, multiple aircraft and hundreds of fire engines battling the blaze, officials needed the “incident support unit” to help them track and organize all those resources.

But in the midst of the response efforts, fire officials discovered a problem: The data connection for their support unit had been slowed to about one two-hundredth of the speed it had previously enjoyed. Like a teenager who streamed too many YouTube videos and pushed his family’s usage above the limits of its data plan, the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District was being throttled by its internet service provider, Verizon. But in this case, officials have emphasized, homes and even lives were at stake.

Advertisement

The county fire district had no choice but to use other agencies’ internet, rely on personal devices to transfer data and ultimately subscribe to a new, more expensive data plan, as Verizon officials urged them to do, according to court documents filed this week.

  —AP Photo/John Minchillo, File

“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,” Chief Anthony Bowden said in a sworn declaration.

Reduced speeds, Bowden added, had “severely interfered” with the support unit’s ability to function effectively and “had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services” during the sprawling Mendocino Complex Fire.

The revelations, which were first reported by Ars Technica, are buried in an addendum to a brief filed in support of 21 states and the District of Columbia, which together filed a lawsuit this year that essentially seeks to restore rules known as net neutrality. The County of Santa Clara, the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District and the California Public Utilities Commission are also petitioners in the lawsuit.

Advertisement

A lawyer for Santa Clara County and its fire department told Ars Technica on Wednesday that it was important to highlight Verizon’s use of throttling amid the net neutrality debate because it showed that internet service providers “will act in their economic interests, even at the expense of public safety.” The repeal of net neutrality, he said, “allows and encourages” that behavior.

In a statement Tuesday, Verizon said it had “made a mistake in how we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan.”

The fire department, Verizon said, had purchased a wireless data plan that came with a certain allotment of data for a set monthly cost. 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.

Still, Verizon conceded, “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,” the company’s statement said. “This was a customer support mistake. We are reviewing the situation and will fix any issues going forward.”

“This situation has nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court,” the statement added.

As of Aug. 13, wildfires across California had scorched more than 726,000 acres and destroyed at least 2,000 structures, Bowden said in his declaration. The Mendocino Complex Fire alone has burned more than 400,000 acres and razed more than 270 structures.

Advertisement

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. To do that, the unit required about 5 to 10 gigabytes of data per day.

After realizing that the unit’s data connection was being throttled by Verizon, Bowden’s technology staff members emailed Verizon, requesting that it end the throttling immediately in the interest of public safety, he wrote.

Bowden’s declaration says — and emails provided as attachments to the court documents appear to confirm — that Verizon representatives acknowledged that throttling was occurring and, then, rather than restoring faster speeds, said that to fix the problem, the fire district would need to switch to a data plan that would cost more than twice as much as it was paying at the time.

“Please work with us,” an exasperated fire official wrote in one of the final emails of a long chain with a Verizon account manager. “All we need is a plan that does not offer throttling or caps of any kind.”

“It’s $99.99 for the first 20GB and $8/GB thereafter,” the Verizon account manager replied. “To get the plan changed immediately, I would suggest calling in the plan change to our customer service team.”