Verizon Throttled California Fire Department Data Usage During Wildfire Crisis

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Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden submitted his declaration as evidence in a lawsuit that Verizon throttled the department’s data services during times of high demand while fighting destructive wildfires. The lawsuit is being filed by 22 state attorneys to reinstate federal net neutrality rules, and the evidence provided by Chief Bowden could be the fuel to get this picked up by the courts.

In his declaration, Bowden says, “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.” He continues, “The Internet has become an essential tool in providing fire and emergency response, particularly for events like large fires which require the rapid deployment and organization of thousands of personnel and hundreds of fire engines, aircraft, and bulldozers.”

The Santa Clara Fire Department paid Verizon for an “unlimited” plan, with the understanding that their data usage and speeds would be unimpeded. However, when it was needed most, their data speeds were slowed to just above 600kbps, hardly quick enough to utilize among a large force of over one thousand firefighters and hundreds of fire engines and planes.

Bowden wrote, “These reduced speeds severely interfered with the OES 5262’s ability to function effectively. My Information Technology staff communicated directly with Verizon via email about the throttling, requesting it be immediately lifted for public safety purposes.”

Even when contacted and presented the situation, Verizon did not immediately restore full speeds for the department. In email correspondence between Bowden and Verizon government accounts manager Silas Buss, it details how Buss recommends that Bowden switch to a more expensive plan to have their data returned to full speeds. Upon being forced to switch to a more expensive plan, the problem persists several weeks later, upon which Buss recommends that Bowden switch to a $99.99 per month plan, nearly double what the department was previously paying.

Not only were they forced to pay more for their “unlimited plan,” many firefighters were forced to use other internet service providers, or even use their own personal phones to communicate and provide much-needed connectivity to properly mobilize their forces.

“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 wrote.

So far, Verizon has been silent on the matter.

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