Firefighters battling the largest wildfires in California history recently found themselves squaring off against not just the blaze, but Verizon’s customer service line, as the vehicle dispatched to coordinate and manage the response to the 410,000 acre fire found their data throttled to 1/200th its usual speed, despite clearly communicating with the company that they were amid a life or death struggle.
Data throttling, or dramatically reducing the speeds in which wireless devices are able to download data from the network, has become a common practice among phone and data providers in the United States, often offering “unlimited plans” that only actually permit a certain amount of data to be relayed at optimum speeds. Once the user exceeds that limit, the flow of data to that device is limited. In this case, that limiting effect made it far more difficult for the fire crews to track their personnel and the spread of the wildfire further hindering their ability to allocate staff and resources to the areas most in need.
“County Fire has experienced throttling by its ISP, Verizon,” Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden wrote in an official statement. “This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services. Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services.”
The fire department engaged directly with Verizon over their customer service line, where they were told that, in order to lift the data restrictions they were experiencing, the department would need to upgrade to a more expensive plan. Verizon would not offer any exception based on the circumstances or emergency assistance, and ultimately, Santa Clara County Fire opted to just pay for the increase in order to get operations running again.