Verizon throttled Santa Clara County Fire's data while they battled wildfires, lawsuit claims

Verizon throttled Santa Clara County Fire's data during wildfire crisis.

August 22, 2018, 8:50 PM

Santa Clara County Fire Chief, Anthony Bowden, said fire teams were hampered in their work battling the recent California wildfires by Verizon’s intentional slowdown of data, despite the fact that the fire department had an "unlimited data plan."

Bowden detailed the situation as part of the lawsuit filed by 22 states and the District of Columbia that challenges the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules, which prevented internet service providers from purposely slowing the data, called "throttling," and blocking or discriminating against users, platforms or content providers.

In the declaration, Bowden said internet systems are important "in providing fire and emergency response, particularly for events like large fires which require rapid deployment and organization" of personnel, resources and equipment.

The lawsuit referred to Santa Clara County Fire’s testimony as evidence of the Commission’s failure to consider the "serious risk" that the reversal of net neutrality poses on public safety.

"County Fire has experienced throttling by its ISP, Verizon," the declaration read, adding that the speed was reduced to 1/200th of its expected performance.

In a statement, Verizon admitted to mistakes in communicating the terms of the plan to the fire department, but also said the situation "has nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court."

Bowden detailed how the data throttling affected their ability to provide timely responses and coordination in the midst of the massive wildfires, which included the largest ongoing wild fire in California history, the Mendocino Complex Fire. As they fought the fire, the department deployed a unit called OES Incident Support Unit 5262 to "track, organize and prioritize routing of resources from around the state and country to the sites where they are most needed," Bowden said.

In order to perform these functions, Bowden said in the declaration, the unit relies heavily on specialized software and Google documents to track and deploy resources through cloud computing over the Internet, exchanging 5 to 10 GB of data each day.

He added that incorrect or delayed deployment of resources in these situations could lead to the loss of property or even loss of life.

On top of that, the data restriction was so severe that routine and basic digital functions were "rendered useless," Captain Bill Murphy, Santa Clara County Fire public information officer, told ABC News.

"It was so slow you couldn’t perform basic work or communicate through email," he said, which led some crew members to resort to using their personal devices.

When the issue started, Bowden said the department immediately reached out to Verizon, but were told that they would need to upgrade to a new data plan that's twice as expensive before the data slowdown would be lifted.

PHOTO: Email exchange between Verizon representatives and Santa Clara County Fire officials.
Email exchange between Verizon representatives and Santa Clara County Fire officials.
Santa Clara County Fire department
PHOTO: Email exchange between Verizon representatives and Santa Clara County Fire officials.
Email exchange between Verizon representatives and Santa Clara County Fire officials.
Santa Clara County Fire department

"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," according to Verizon's statement.

Although the issue was eventually resolved, Murphy said the larger concern lies in public safety.

"If the public experienced similar data throttling and is unable to access information or instructions during an emergency it could be dangerous," Murphy told ABC News. He said that's why the fire department joined the lawsuit.

Verizon did admit to a "customer service mistake" in not making an exception to allow the fire department higher speed because it was an emergency.

"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 Verizon statement read.

The fire chief said the team was not able to carry out its plans as effectively as it should have been.

"You’re there to perform what is an important piece of coordination effort," and to not be able to do that was "frustrating" for everyone, Murphy said.