Verizon sued by CA firefighters for slowing speeds during wildfire

Posted August 27, 2018

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.

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.

Friday morning, Verizon's Senior Vice President of Public Sector Mike Maiorana released a statement that the company "didn't live up to our own promise of service and performance excellence when our process failed some first responders on the line". The department claims that when it contacted Verizon on this matter, the carrier said it would only lift the speed caps if the department switched to a new unlimited plan, which cost twice as much as the previous plan.

Contrary to multiple media reports, Santa Clara County did not subscribe to the proposed $99.99-per-month plan, which would have covered the first 20 GB of data use and then charged an additional $8 per GB used, without be subject to data throttling, Williams said. "Verizon imposed these limitations, despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire's ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services".

Instead, the representative urged the county to upgrade to a more expensive package, according to an email chain attached to the county's court filing.

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The fire chief said the incident with Verizon highlighted the importance of ensuring emergency responders have access to quick data that could prove lifesaving.

"Californians who depend on first responders to protect their lives and property were shocked to learn that a cellular service provider could use its pricing policies to hinder the efforts of firefighters in the early hours of the Mendocino Complex Fire", the committee's leaders, Democratic Assembly members Marc Levine of San Rafael and Monique Limon of Santa Barbara said in a joint statement. Full containment is expected come September.

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".

The account by Bowden is part of a larger lawsuit, filed by 22 states that are seeking to overturn the government's decision to revoke net neutrality. "For that, we are truly sorry". He said he hoped Verizon and other providers will provide assurances this will never happen again and asked state lawmakers to "harden our infrastructure to protect cell towers" against wildfires, which assist both first responders and evacuees.

'In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us. But the Federal Communications Commission also has "transparency rules" that require broadband providers to disclose their traffic management practices to customers.

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"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 effect", said Joe Simitian, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

Verizon cut data speeds to a firefighter command vehicle.

Verizon blamed a communication error and acknowledged the fire department's normal service should have been restored more quickly than it was.

'In large and complex fires, resource allocation requires immediate information, ' he wrote.

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