Verizon Throttles California Firefighter Bandwidth During Emergency, Demands More Money, Later Calls It ‘A Mistake’

California wildfire with Verizon logo

Verizon has crawled ass-backwards into a PR nightmare of its own making. In documents filed in a net neutrality-related lawsuit, a California fire department battling the worst forest fires in history accused Big Red of throttling its data speeds and demanding more money in the very midst of an emergency. For its part, Verizon issued a statement that falls short of apologizing for its corporate stupidity, but did call the incident a mistake.

California wildfire with Verizon logo
Corporate branding maybe Verizon wasn’t hoping for

Emergency Opportunity to Make More Money

Ars Technica broke the story after emails were submitted to an ongoing lawsuit from 22 states suing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) for ending Net Neutrality protections on internet data. Those emails were from Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden, who wrote in an addendum to the above-mentioned lawsuit:

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. These reduced speeds severely interfered with the OES 5262’s ability to function effectively. My Information Technology staff communicated directly with Verizon via email about the throttling, requesting it be immediately lifted for public safety purposes.

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.

But wait, it gets better. That “OES 5262” mentioned is a command-and-control vehicle used to coordinate large fires. It relies on a Verizon SIM card for its internet data. The “unlimited” plan the organization had purchased was $37.99 a month. To make that data “really unlimited” (my words), Verizon demanded $2.00 per month more and the company wouldn’t unthrottle until it was paid.

Two. Dollars. Per. Month.

Mind you, in the end, it turns out that $39.99 unlimited plan was limited, too, so to really get that unlimited plan, now the fire department was going to have to pay $99.99 per month, pinky swear, and this time Lucy totally is going to hold the ball while Charlie Brown kicks it.

And all this in the midst of historic emergency forest fires.

Big Red’s Sidestepping Statement

Enter Verizon’s statement after Ars Technica‘s report went live [emphasis added], via The Verge:

This situation has nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court.

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 billing cycle. 

Regardless 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.

Please note the sentence I emphasized. This bit of corporate chicanery is a fitting statement in the era of “alternative facts” and “truth isn’t truth,” but come on. Here’s my statement of opinion on this sentence:

Dear Verizon,

Unusable data isn’t unlimited, you lying corporate bloodsuckers.

Love, Bryan

Net Neutrality

Though this mess came to light due to the lawsuit against the FCC by 22 state attorneys general, I agree with Verizon that this incident has little to do with Net Neutrality, per se. But, there were other rollbacks in FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s deregulation of the broadband industry that do come into play.

As Ars Technica noted, the fire department could have complained about this incident to the FCC, but Ajit Pai had the complaint mechanism removed as part of the Net Neutrality rollback. That rollback also limited the ability of consumers (in this case, the fire department is a consumer) to sue over unjust or unreasonable behavior.

In other words, while Verizon is right on the thinnest veneer of the surface, there’s a reason this addendum was added to this case, as it covers the whole shebang, and not just Net Neutrality.

2 thoughts on “Verizon Throttles California Firefighter Bandwidth During Emergency, Demands More Money, Later Calls It ‘A Mistake’

  • So imagine in the middle of fighting a fire the water company says “You exceeded the amount of water allocated to you so now we’re reducing your flow and pressure by half”. There would be heads on pikes for that. CEOs would get fired for that. Net Neutrality or not, this was a stupid move by Verizon, and their “apology” only made it worse.

  • Really couldn’t make that up – in the land of the free, big corporate treads over everything, at will, either because ‘we are disrupting the market’ – Uber, Amazon, Airbnb etc – or because there’s no regulation to ‘do the right thing’ but there comes a point where market dominance is no longer ‘disrupting the market’ – it IS the market.
    So how the likes of Amazon get taxed becomes really significant.

    There’s only one company with any serious corporate ethical behaviour when it comes to privacy and that’s Apple. IMHO, personally, I trust no one else.

    Verizon need to apologize, profusely, offer every first responder organisation in the country uncapped data, indefinitely, and attempt to fix up their reputation.

    Net Neutrality needs to enforced, rigorously, but for the next two and half years, good luck with that because management by Twitter isn’t the way to bring corporate America to heel.

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