While they were risking their lives trying to save homes, families, livestock, and forest, Verizon was making an extra buck off the firefighters battling California’s numerous wildfires. The Santa Clara County Fire Department is using its experience as evidence in a federal net neutrality lawsuit, Ars Technica reports.
“County Fire has experienced throttling by its ISP, Verizon,” Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden wrote Tuesday. “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.”
Verizon says that throttling and resulting extra charges were due to a customer service error.
“Regardless of the plan emergency responders choose, we have a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations,” Verizon told Ars Technica in a statement. The fire department had a plan in place that Verizon throttled to speeds of 200 KB or 600 KB after 25 GB of data usage had been exceeded in a month. Verizon said that in many cases it has removed such data restrictions for emergency personnel responding to fires, and that the restriction should have been lifted “when our customer reached out to us.”
The Santa Clara County Fire Department isn’t buying it, however. The department is one of roughly two dozen state and local government agencies suing the federal government over its recently enacted net neutrality policy.
“Verizon’s throttling has everything to do with net neutrality—it shows that the ISPs will act in their economic interests, even at the expense of public safety,” county counsel James Williams told Ars Technica on the county and fire department’s behalf. “That is exactly what the Trump administration’s repeal of net neutrality allows and encourages.”
When the Santa Clara County fire department reached out, a Verizon representative said the agency would need to upgrade its $37.99/month plan to a different plan that cost $99.99 for the first 20GB of data each month and $8 for each additional gigabyte. Data should only have beeen throttled in the original plan if the department exceeded the data plan, and the network was congested. Instead, the department’s data was throttled at all times. Verizon only lifted the throttling after the agency switched to this more expensive plan.
When the department decided on its data plan, it had been with an understanding that the experience would never be degraded “because of [the department’s] critical infrastructure need for these devices,” according to an email exchange between fire department staff shared by Ars Technica. The department thought it had access to a truly unlimited data plan. Instead, some devices were left with “no meaningful functionality” due to the severe throttling they experienced, seriously hindering fire fighting operations.
In any emergency, including fighting a fire, every second counts. That firefighting personnel would need to reach out to Verizon first to get their data throttling lifted is absurd. That a customer service representative thought it appropriate to gouge the customer during an emergency situation is appalling, and that Verizon calls this a customer service issue rather than admitting that it’s a sign of broken policy and misguided company goals is, well, not entirely unexpected.
It’s yet to be seen whether this and other federal net neutrality lawsuits will spark policy change under the current administration. It is clear, however, that such extensive data throttling is having a bigger impact than just irritating users who are data hogs—it could be costing homes, businesses, and even lives.