Verizon Throttling Cripples Fight Against California Fire

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The Santa Clara County Fire Department had remote firefighting vehicle OES 5262 on the scene of the largest wildfire in California's history when it was suddenly rendered all but useless by a slow connection because Verizon had throttled it. The machine uses vast amounts of data in relaying video, audio and commands back and forth between multiple sources, and had run over the 25GB threshold on the Fire Department's unlimited plan with Verizon. In order to reinstate the vehicle, County Fire's IT operations had to get in touch with Verizon and pay immediately to hop on a new plan that was more than double the cost of their old one.

Verizon was technically well within its legal rights to do as it had done as the terms for the plan that the department was on clearly stated that 25GB was the threshold for throttling. The company has a policy that typically allows temporary lifting of these sorts of restrictions when a customer contacts Verizon and asks for full speeds for emergency reasons, as was the case here. That policy was not adhered to, and in a later statement, Verizon called the issue "a customer support mistake." The company also said it had not effectively communicated the limitations of this plan with the department beforehand. According to the fire department, its IT team had previously contacted Verizon and was assured that lines used for mission-critical equipment would not experience data throttling.

In the aftermath, this case is being included in a number of grievances being brought by 22 states as part of a mass plea to reinstate Title II net neutrality protections. To be clear, net neutrality protections may not have prevented this incident but would have given the fire department some recourse afterward beyond settling things with Verizon. Problems like this may plague FirstNet, the AT&T-managed effort to provide reasonably priced, prioritized service to first responders. Its unlimited plans dictate that exceeding 22GB of usage on an unlimited plan for three months in a row will get first responders and their teams moved to a pooled data plan with a fixed allotment of data. At the top levels, this data allotment can go as high as 1 terabyte per month.

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