Published: Mon, August 27, 2018
Hi-Tech | By Preston Stone

Verizon slowed internet speed for first responders to fire

Verizon slowed internet speed for first responders to fire

A Northern California fire department says Verizon slowed its wireless data speeds to a crawl last month, rendering some of its high-tech tracking equipment nearly useless as firefighters battled the largest wildfire in state history.

Santa Clara County Fire Chief Tony Bowden wrote in a declaration, filed as evidence in a lawsuit over net neutrality rules, that his department was tasked with coordinating resources - such as personnel and vehicles - during the wildfires.

In the wake of a customer-service backlash involving California firefighters, Verizon is apologizing for slowing down the data speeds of first-responders - and says it will begin offering emergency workers a new unlimited data plan to avoid future mishaps.

On Friday, Verizon announced in a statement (https://www.verizon.com/about/news/verizon-statement-california-wildfires-and-hurricane-lane-hawaii) that it will temporarily stop all throttling on service for first responders on the West Coast and in Hawaii, to support firefighting efforts and the response to Hurricane Lane.

Bowden said Verizon restored full speeds only after the department subscribed to a more expensive plan.

But Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams - representing the county's fire department - countered in a press release Wednesday, saying, "Verizon's throttling has everything to do with net neutrality". The Mendocino Complex fire has become the largest ever brush fire in California. Full containment is expected come September.

The subject of the suit was a request from 22 state attorneys general and the attorney general for the District of Columbia to overturn the FCC's repeal of net neutrality.

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Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato said initially that the company's response to Bowden was a "customer support mistake" and "has nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court". "We are reviewing the situation and will fix any issues going forward", it said. "For that, we are truly sorry". Ironically, it's Verizon's policy to remove throttling restrictions when asked by fire departments in emergency situations at no additional cost.

"Responders rely on mobile connectivity to communicate response status, communicate orders, provide critical incident information, and develop action plans", said Bowden.

The FCC's new rules require internet service providers to publicly disclose how they manage traffic but charge the Federal Trade Commission - not the FCC - with handling complaints.

USA telco Verizon cut back data service to a mobile command and control centre to just 0.5% of normal level after the firefighters exceeded their data package.

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. But the issue was exacerbated at the Mendocino Complex Fire in July, as the staff could not reach a Verizon accounts manager, despite multiple phone calls and emails, until a day later.

In that message, Stockman throttling as being when "the device that can normally act like a modern broadband internet connection is slowed to the point of acting more like an AOL dial-up modem from 1995".

"If folks are in a position to block or slow your access to information at a time of an emergency, that's gonna have a bad outcome", said Joe Simitian, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

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