Fire Chief Says Verizon Throttled Data During Mendocino Complex Fire
Wednesday, August 22, 2018 | Comments

Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden said in a court brief regarding net neutrality that Verizon throttled the California county’s data speeds during the Mendocino Complex Fire, hindering its response efforts.

The filing said the county’s data rates were reduced to 1/200th or less of previous speeds, rendering the service useless “despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis response and essential emergency services.”

The information was part of a brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals challenging the FCC’s lifting of net neutrality, which allows throttling and paid prioritization.

In a declaration submitted in support of the brief, Bowden said the fire unit that experienced the throttling was a truck that “facilitates resource check-in and routing for local government resources.” Bowden said that near real-time information exchange over the vehicle’s router is critical because resource allocation requires immediate information.

“Data or stale information regarding the availability or need for resources can slow response times and render them far less effective,” Bowden’s declaration said. “Resources could be deployed to the wrong fire, the wrong part of the fire or fail to be deployed at all. Even small delays in response translate into devastating effects, including loss of property, and, in some cases, loss of life.”

In emails between Verizon and the fire department submitted as support for the brief, a Verizon employee said its nonpublic-safety plans have throttling built in, and the county had to change to a new public-safety plan to avoid the throttling.

The declaration said that the throttling was eventually lifted after the fire department subscribed to a more expensive plan. Prior to the lifting of the throttling, the fire department had to use other agencies’ internet service providers (ISPs) or rely on firefighters’ personal devices to get the necessary data capabilities, the declaration said.

In a statement, Verizon said the situation had nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court.

“We made a mistake in how we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan,” the statement said. “Like all customers, fire departments choose service plans that are best for them. This customer purchased a government contract plan for a high-speed wireless data allotment at a set monthly cost. Under this plan, users get an unlimited amount of data, but speeds are reduced when they exceed their allotment until the next billing cycle. 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 brief used Bowden’s comments as an example to argue that the FCC had not considered how its order that lifted net neutrality would impact public safety in the U.S., even though it is statutorily mandated to do so.

In another example, the brief argued that some carrier actions allowed by the lifting of net neutrality could harm electric utilities’ ability to maintain the reliability of the U.S. electrical grid.

“As part of the effort to modernize the nation’s electrical grid, electric utilities in California and other states have invested ratepayer funds in integrated systems of smart meters, communication networks and data management system that enable two-way communication between utilities and customers,” the brief said. “Instant communication between customers, suppliers, energy generators, contractors, regulators and safety personnel is essential to maintaining a safe and reliable grid, and must thus remain free from blocking or delay due to throttling or deprioritization.”

Government petitioners in the lawsuit include 22 states, the District of Columbia, Santa Clara County, the Santa Clara County Fire Protection District and the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). Mozilla and a variety of organization focused on internet openness are also petitioners in the case.

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