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Verizon Throttled Data During Deadly Wildfire in California

27 August 2018

In the heat of the largest wildfire in California history, Verizon dramatically slowed down data speeds for Santa Clara County firefighters helping to battle the blaze and suggested the department should pay more for a better data plan.

The executives spoke shortly after hearing from Santa Clara County Fire Chief Tony Bowden who said that his agency had experienced similar throttling in December 2017.

The Santa Clara County Fire Department has said Verizon slowed its internet communications at a wildfire command center three weeks ago, crippling an emergency communications truck's data speeds and forcing firefighters to use other agencies' internet connections and their personal cellphones.

"We didn't live up to our own promise of service and performance excellence when our process failed some first responders on the line, battling a massive California wildfire", Mike Maiorana, a Verizon senior vice-president, said in a statement Friday. Not only did Verizon refuse to lift the cap it had placed on the internet speeds on an unlimited data plan, it tried to convince the department that switching to a different, more expensive one was its only viable solution. In the first case, during the Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara, Verizon lifted the data cap in 20 minutes after the department reached out to a company accounts manager.

"The fire department's concern is more that the throttling may impact the public in times of emergency and disaster", Murphy said.

In the lawsuit, Bowden said internet systems are important "in providing fire and emergency response, particularly for events like large fires which require rapid deployment and organization" of personnel, resources and equipment. 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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"It really truly is meant for the rigors of first responders and how we need it", he said.

However, these functions typically require 5-10 GB of data usage per day, so OES 5262 quickly used the 25 GB monthly allotment of broadband data capacity under its Verizon data plan.

"Responders rely on mobile connectivity to communicate response status, communicate orders, provide critical incident information, and develop action plans", said Bowden. "And we're making every effort to ensure that it never happens again".

In a statement to CBS News earlier this week, Verizon said the throttling had "nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court".

"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.

Multiple members of Congress, including Democratic Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, wrote a letter Friday to the Federal Trade Commission demanding an investigation into Verizon's data-throttling of emergency workers. Ironically, it's Verizon's policy to remove throttling restrictions when asked by fire departments in emergency situations at no additional cost. Verizon customers have access to our more than 450,000-square mile 4G LTE coverage advantage over competitors.

Firefighters monitor a backfire while battling the Ranch Fire, part of the Mendocino Complex Fire, Aug. 7, 2018, near Ladoga, Calif.

Verizon Throttled Data During Deadly Wildfire in California