USA telco cut data to firefighters tackling brush fire

Firefighters battling California's largest fire hit by crippling data slowdown slam Verizon's tactics

As California firefighters battled the largest fire in the state's history, Verizon slowed wireless data speeds to a crawl, making it nearly impossible for emergency personnel to use some of its high-tech tracking equipment.

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.

The lawsuit, filed by 22 states and the District of Columbia, challenges the Federal Communications Commission's repeal of net neutrality rules, which prevented internet service providers from purposely slowing the data, called "throttling", and blocking or discriminating against users, platforms or content providers.

In what are now substantiated reports that Verizon Wireless throttled data plans of firefighters while they were battling the Mendocino Complex Fires, California Legislators from across California are calling out the carrier and demanding formal action be taken.

The fire department has an unlimited government plan with Verizon, but the company slowed, or throttled, data speed once the agency reached a certain threshold, Bowden wrote in an August 20 court filing.

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".

Santa Clara County Fire Department chief Anthony Bowden testified Friday before Verizon announced the plan. "We are reviewing the situation and will fix any issues going forward".

Firefighters were forced to use personal devices and other agency's internet providers to effectively communicate, and Bowden said data was only restored after the department upgraded to a new, more expensive plan.

However, more recently, when county fire officials were responding to the Mendocino Complex fire (which is still ongoing) and the agency had its bandwidth substantially reduced on a mobile command center before the caps were briefly lifted, it was hit with throttling yet again.

"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. Ironically, it's Verizon's policy to remove throttling restrictions when asked by fire departments in emergency situations at no additional cost.

"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", read Eshoo and Pelosi's letter.

United States 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. Verizon said it will reveal more in an announcement next week.

Verizon Senior Vice President Mike Maiorana says Verizon will lift data restrictions and provide full network access to first responders during disasters. "And we're making every effort to ensure that it never happens again", according to a statement from Verizon. The blaze ranked second in size only to the Mendocino Complex fires, the largest in state history.

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