This summer, when fires raged throughout northern California, firefighters found their ability to combat the blaze hindered by Verizon.
The Santa Clara County fire department, which relies on broadband to coordinate a response to the fires, consumed more than the 25 Gigabits of service per month that its supposedly "unlimited" data plan offered. Verizon responded to the overage by throttling the department's broadband service and refusing to restore high-speed connections until the county agreed to purchase a more expensive plan.
Santa Clara Fire Chief Anthony Bowden outlined the department's experience with Verizon in court papers filed this week.
"In the midst of our response to the Mendocino Complex Fire, County Fire discovered the data connection for OES 5262 was being throttled by Verizon, and data rates had been reduced to 1/200, or less, than the previous speeds," he wrote. "These reduced speeds severely interfered with the OES 5262's ability to function effectively."
"OES 5262" is the fire department's name for the mobile command truck that was coordinating efforts to battle the fires.
Bowen adds that OES 5262 "relies heavily on the use of specialized software and Google Sheets to do near-real-time resource tracking through the use of cloud computing over the Internet."
Bowden says department personnel attempted in vain to educate Verizon on the critical role that broadband plays in firefighting.
"We explained the importance of OES 5262 and its role in providing for public and first-responder safety and requested immediate removal of the throttling," he alleges. "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 new data plan."
A group of 23 attorneys general who are fighting to restore the net neutrality rules submitted Bowden's statement to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals on Monday. Ars Technica first reported Bowden's statement.
Verizon now says it made mistakes -- both in how it described its "unlimited" plan, and in continuing to throttle the fire department after learning of the emergency.
The Obama-era net neutrality rules -- now repealed -- prohibited broadband providers from throttling based on the type of material being transmitted, but didn't outlaw data plans that slow service after customers hit a cap. But the Federal Communications Commission still has "transparency rules" that require broadband providers to disclose their traffic management practices to customers; Verizon, by its own admission, could have done a better job of that.
When the FCC voted last December to repeal the net neutrality rules, Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly assured the public that broadband providers were unlikely to risk a public relations debacle by violating open internet principles.
"I sincerely doubt that legitimate businesses are willing to subject themselves to a PR nightmare for attempting to engage in blocking, throttling, or improper discrimination. It is simply not worth the reputational cost and potential loss of business," he wrote.
Verizon's actions this summer suggest that providers are willing to run the risk of bad publicity in exchange for more revenue.