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Firefighters battle Verizon throttling during Mendocino fires

By Jules Wang August 22, 2018, 9:00 pm

In California, the Mendocino Complex wildfire has been burning for more than three weeks now. Two fires spanning four counties joined together to destroy more than 400,000 acres of forest, the most land a complex fire has ever taken. While 75 percent of the activity has been contained, there’s still much work that needs to be done.

One of the fire departments aiding the relief efforts is Santa Clara County, which has lashed out at Verizon for throttling the data speeds of its fleet of communication devices. Ars Technica reports the following declaration was issued by county fire chief Anthony Bowden and appended to a net neutrality lawsuit against the FCC.


County Fire has experienced throttling by its ISP, Verizon. This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services. Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services.

Bowden goes on to say that the unit working on Mendocino uses up to 10 gigabytes every day to circuit real-time information from the front lines — an essential emergency service that requires more than 2G speeds when the department hit the 25GB threshold on its plan.

In response to requests to remove the throttling, a Verizon account manager first offered a $2 per month upcharge to remove the throttle limit. After further discussion, they then offered a no-throttle plan of $99.99 per month for 20GB with overages of $8 per gigabyte — more than double the $37.99 cost of the department’s current plan. Santa Clara County ultimately decided to subscribe to that plan, but as the plan was in negotiation, it had resorted to having firefighters use their personal handsets and the ISPs of other agencies.

Verizon responded to the Ars article three hours after its original publication:

Regardless of the plan emergency responders choose, we have a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations. We have done that many times, including for emergency personnel responding to these tragic fires. In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us. This was a customer support mistake. We are reviewing the situation and will fix any issues going forward.

The telco insists that the fire department was initially on a plan that clearly had speed limits beyond a threshold, but that it should have “communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan” in a clearer manner. The case has nothing to do with net neutrality, it claims.

However, Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams shot back.

“Verizon’s throttling has everything to do with net neutrality,” Williams said. “It shows that the ISPs will act in their economic interests, even at the expense of public safety. That is exactly what the Trump Administration’s repeal of net neutrality allows and encourages.”

Santa Clara County is supporting a lawsuit against the FCC led by conservative chairman Ajit Pai in effecting the Restoring Internet Freedom Act which features rules repealing net neutrality protections as set in the commission’s Open Internet Order of 2015. 22 state attorneys general, the District of Columbia, Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District and the California Public Utilities Commission have all signed onto same brief.


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