Verizon Throttled California Firefighters’ Data Speeds During a Wildfire

“The Internet has become an essential tool in providing fire and emergency response, particularly for events like large fires which require the rapid deployment and organization of thousands of personnel and hundreds of fire engines, aircraft, and bulldozers.”

Those words were part of a declaration made by Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden after the multinational telecommunications conglomerate Verizon throttled the fire department’s data speed during the latest California wildfire.

The Santa Clara Fire Department uses Verizon’s data services and pays for “unlimited” data, but the department was aked to pay Verizon more to lift the throttling while trying to contain the Mendocino Complex Fire.

“Verizon representatives confirmed the throttling,” Bowden said in his declaration, “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.”

The throttling affected a fire department vehicle, known as OES 5262, that is used to “track, organize, and prioritize routing of resources from around the state and country to the sites where they are most needed,” Bowden wrote.

Bowden went on to say that data rates had been reduced to 1/200, explaining that “these reduced speeds severely interfered with the OES 5262’s ability to function effectively.”

In response, County Fire personnel were forced to use other Internet Service Providers and their own personal devices to provide the necessary connectivity and data transfer capability.

Email exchanges between the fire department and Verizon confirm Bowden’s words. They also reveal that this was not the first time that Verizon has behaved in such a manner. It turns out that the telecommunications company had throttled the department’s data speeds on two prior occasions, once last December and again last June.

The declaration was added to a brief filed by 22 state attorneys general, the District of Columbia, Santa Clara County, Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District, and the California Public Utilities Commission, part of an effort reverse the repeal of net neutrality rules.

Following the incident, Verizon said that it will not apply any speed caps for first responders on the West Coast battling wildfires, emergency workers in Hawaii who are dealing with Hurricane Lane, as well as any public safety customers in case of a disaster.