Verizon Admits Throttling Firefighter Internet Access During California Blaze

Matt Broersma is a long standing tech freelance, who has worked for Ziff-Davis, ZDnet and other leading publications

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The company said that effectively cutting off firefighters’ internet access was a customer support mistake, as US states demand the return of net neutrality rules

US cellular provider Verizon has admitted it made an error in throttling mobile data usage by a California fire service command-and-control unit during attempts to battle the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest known group of fires in California’s modern history.

Verizon said its action in effectively cutting off the unit’s data access was due to a customer service mistake.

The company’s action meant that a command unit deployed by Santa Clara County’s fire service had effectively no internet access for a period of time during the Mendocino fire, until after it upgraded to another data plan at more than double the cost.

The Mendocino fires began in July 2018 and are ongoing. Verizon’s throttling practices had also previously affected the department’s response to previous fires in December 2017 and June 2018, according to court documents.

Deregulation

The incident came to light in documents filed in support of a lawsuit filed by several states in an effort to reverse the US’ repeal of net neutrality rules. The issue was earlier reported by Ars Technica.

It raises questions about the deregulation of the telecoms industry by the US communications regulator, the FTC, under the current presidential administration.

Those rules provided a complaints process that could be used by customers to report unfair practices such as those described in the court papers. The process was removed along with the regulations.

Verizon denied that its actions were related to the issue of net neutrality.

The company said in a statement that its policy was to “remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations…  In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us.”

Its failure to do so was a “customer support mistake”, Verizon said, adding it is “reviewing the situation and will fix any issues going forward”.

Throttling

Following its previous problems with throttling, the Santa Clara County fire service discovered, at the end of June 2018, that its command unit, OES 5262, was continuing to experience throttling that effectively removed its internet access.

The unit is normally deployed to coordinate firefighting activities and “relies heavily on the use of specialised software and Google Sheets… to track, organise, and prioritise routing of resources from around the state and country to the sites where they are most needed,” said fire chief Anthony Bowden in the court documents.

“Even small delays in response translate into devastating effects, including loss of property, and, in some cases, loss of life,” he wrote

The throttling was due to the department’s use of a plan that reduced speeds after the use of 25GB of data.

On the evening of 29 July a fire captain emailed Verizon to say that speeds being capped at 0.2Mbps meant the unit’s internet access effectively had been cut off.

In a later email message the department’s IT officer wrote to Verizon: “Remove any data throttling… effective immediately.”

But Verizon continued to negotiate with the department to switch to another plan, at more than double the cost, which provided per-gigabyte fees in place of throttling.

‘Coercion’

The company didn’t remove the throttling measures until after the department had contacted Verizon’s billing department to change its plan.

At the time, news reports indicated that 4,500 buildings were at risk from the fires in Northern California, with seven firefighters injured whilst trying to contain it.

“Rather than restoring us to an essential data transfer speed, they indicated that County Fire would have to switch to a new data plan at more than twice the cost and they would only remove throttling after we contacted the department that handles billing and switched to the new data plan,” said Mr Bowden.

The department had to rely on equipment from other agencies and on personal equipment provided by staff while it worked to change its contract.

Bowden accused Verizon of “coercive” practives that take advantage of emergency situations.

“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,” he wrote.