Bay Area firefighting agency, assisting with the response to themassive
Mendocino Complex Fire, says its
communications were crippled by Verizon through a controversial
practice known as “throttling.”
Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District says a
communications vehicle it dispatched to the Mendocino Complex, the largest
wildfire in California’s history, was rendered essentially
useless after Verizon reduced data speeds to a fraction of what
Clara’s complaint was lodged in a legal brief filed Monday as part
of a major lawsuit aimed at restoring
“net neutrality,” the doctrine that says
all internet traffic must be treated equal. The Federal
Communications Commission last year repealed net neutrality, which
had been implemented in 2015 by the Obama administration.
FCC says net neutrality stifles innovation. But 22 state attorneys
general, in their court filing Monday, said net neutrality
prevents internet service providers from implementing practices
such as “throttling,” in which data speeds are dramatically
reduced. Left to their own devices, internet providers “will abuse
their gatekeeper roles in ways that harm consumers and threaten
public safety,” the court filing said.
attorneys general cited Santa Clara’s predicament in the Mendocino
wildfire as an example. Anthony Bowden, the Santa Clara fire
chief, said in the court filing that its communications unit, a
specially equipped recreational vehicle known as OES 5262, found
its data speeds dramatically reduced when it arrived to help with
the Mendocino fire, hampering communications. The issue came to a
head at the end of July, as the fire was menacing areas of
Mendocino and Lake counties.
reduced speeds severely interfered with OES 5262’s ability to
function effectively,” Bowden wrote. The vehicle is a “command and
control resource” that helps direct traffic during big fires and
other emergencies, coordinating with other agencies, he added.
lawsuit over net neutrality is pending in the U.S. Circuit Court
of Appeals in Washington, D.C. Santa Clara’s complaint was first reported
by Arstechnica, a tech-news website.
chief said his agency complained to Verizon, but the telecom
provider said the Santa Clara fire district had to switch to a
more expensive data plan that would prevent throttling. Santa
Clara’s firefighters on the scene used other agencies’ internet
connections and their personal phones until the agency eventually
subscribed to the better plan, he wrote. It wasn’t clear how long
in a statement to The Sacramento Bee, apologized for what happened
but said it wasn’t related to the fight over net neutrality.
situation has nothing to do with net neutrality or the current
proceeding in court,” the carrier said. “We made a mistake in how
we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan.
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
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.”
court filing showed that Santa Clara was no stranger to this
issue. In a series of emails included in the legal brief, Santa
Clara fire officials complained to Verizon in late June, a month
before the Mendocino emergency, that their data speeds were being
“throttled” by the carrier. At the time, a Verizon representative
told the agency that its data plan included “data throttling
limitation” and he suggested a switch to a more expensive plan.
Bill Murphy, a spokesman for the Santa Clara department, said
Wednesday the agency did switch prior to the Mendocino fire to a
plan that allowed Verizon to “throttle” down data speeds, but not
as severely as before. Murphy said firefighters figured the new
plan would be sufficient to allow data to flow smoothly — but
discovered otherwise when they arrived at the Mendocino fire.
McLean, a spokesman for Cal Fire, said he wasn’t aware of any
other firefighting agencies encountering problems similar to Santa
California Legislature is debating a bill, SB 822, that would
require internet companies to reinstate net neutrality in
Mendocino Complex Fire, which has burned more territory than any
fire in California history, has destroyed 406,532 acres and is 74
percent contained. A firefighter from Utah died in the blaze.
Editor’s note: A previous
version of this story said the FCC is led by an appointee of
President Donald Trump. It is led by a Barack Obama appointee.