Verizon Throttled California Fire Department's Unlimited Data During Wildfire Outbreak

Verizon Wireless is catching heat for throttling data services of the Santa Clara County Fire Department while wildfires ravaged California. The fire department's chief, Anthony Bowden, said the throttling impeded his department's ability to respond to emergencies, and that Verizon was informed of the "significant impact" its decision was having.

Santa Clara Fire pays Verizon for what is supposed to be 'unlimited' data. However, it apparently reached the limit of unfettered data and had its services throttled, which primarily affected a fire department vehicle that is "deployed to large incidents as a command and control resource." This rolling command center tracks, organizes, and prioritizes emergency responses to where they are needed most.

"County Fire has experienced throttling by its ISP, Verizon," Bowden wrote in a declaration that was spotted by Arstechnica. "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."

The declaration is part of an addendum to a lawsuit filed by nearly two dozen state attorneys general and several other organizations seeking to reverse the repeal of net neutrality rules. According to Bowden, the data connection for its mobile command center was reduced to 1/200 the speed, or less, of the fire department's previous speeds.

"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," Bowden wrote.

He went on to state that Verizon acknowledged the throttling, but rather than restore the department's previous speed, the wireless carrier indicated County Fire would need to switch to a new data plan that costs twice as much.

This situation seemingly represents one of the worst case scenarios of removing net neutrality rules, though Verizon chalked it up to a "mistake," and not a net neutrality issue. Here is Verizon's full statement:
This situation has 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. 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.
It's unfortunate that this happened. At the same time, it doesn't appear that it would have been avoided if net neutrality rules were still in place. The issue, it seems, is with data caps and in particular imposing them on emergency responders.