CBS Sacramento

Fire Chief: Verizon Throttled Data During Mendocino Complex Fires

August 21, 2018

SACRAMENTO (CBS13) — Firefighters battling the largest blaze in California history say Verizon throttled their data, crippling important resources during the emergency.

Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden filed a statement saying the data connection to OES 5262, a mobile communications center, had been throttled as firefighters battled the Mendocino Complex fires. Rather than simply lift the data cap in an emergency situation, Bowden says Verizon instead tried to force the department to change its plan to one that cost more than double and would not budge on the data cap until the switch happened.

READ THE REPORT: Mozilla Corporation, et al v Federal Communications Commission Of America

Verizon representatives confirmed the throttling, but 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 plan.

At this point, Bowden says fire personnel had to rely on their own personal devices rather than the mobile command center. Verizon eventually lifted the throttling, but not until the department signed up for a new plan.

Bowden is concerned the company could hold first responders and taxpayers over a barrel when in times of life and death:

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.

Emails from July and August showed the exchange between Verizon and the fire department. The department complained to Verizon on June 29 about speeds plummeting from 50 mbps down and 10 mbps up to just 30 kbps down and 130 kbps up. Later emails from the same fire captain state the same issue happened in December 2017 while responding to another fire.

The fire department was under the impression that its unlimited plan was unlimited and had no data caps, but that was not the case, according to Verizon. The company offered to remove the data caps that were put in place, but not until fire officials changed their data plans.

The issue cropped up again on July 29 as the Mendocino Complex fires were exploding in size. When fire officials asked for a plan that would remove the cap on July 30, a Verizon representative offered a plan that was $99 a month for the first 20 GB of data, plus an additional $8 for each gigabyte after that 20. It was a far cry from the $37.99 the department was paying before. That was the only method Verizon offered for removing the cap.

The Mendocino Complex fires exploded in size between July 29 and 30 from around 24,000 acres to nearly 70,000 acres. As of Tuesday night, the fires have burned more than 400,000 acres.

The report is part of a filing by Mozilla Corporation, the makers of the Firefox browser, against the Federal Communications Commission over the FCC’s decision to rescind net neutrality rules passed under the Obama administration.

Fire Capt. Bill Murphy says the problem comes down to an issue of public safety.

“Our concern would be the public’s ability to access the information that we are providing to them through the Internet,” he said. “We rely on the Internet as a critical tool to communicate that information. If the data is throttled on the public’s end, their ability to download that information is going to be severely impacted.”

Verizon says the fire department was subscribed to an “unlimited” data plan that was limited. The company has come under fire for its use of the word “unlimited” while placing limitations on plans. In this case, the plan firefighters were under was “unlimited” until they hit a certain data point, then their data would be throttled to a slower speed.

“In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us. This was a customer support mistake,” the company said in a written statement.

The statement went on to say this has nothing to do with net neutrality, but the issue at the core of the net neutrality debate is how far Internet service providers and mobile companies can go when it comes to managing its network. Throttling data speeds has been one way mobile companies like Verizon have attempted to manage their networks.

This story originally appeared on CBS Sacramento on Aug. 21, 2018