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.
According to reports, the operator talking with Verizon was quoted as saying, “Please work with us. All we need is a plan that does not offer throttling or caps of any kind.”
While the cost difference was comparatively insignificant in the face of such immense destruction, the County was forced to agree to more than doubling the cost of their service from $37.99 to $99.99 that still would not offer unlimited data, but Verizon informed them that they would now be allowed to pay an additional $8 per gigabyte of data transferred above their new cap. Of course, all this was negotiated from the cabin of the vehicle that was, at the time, supposed to be managing a crises response.
“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,” Bowden wrote. “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.”
As a result, a suit has been filed against Verizon by 22 state attorneys general, in large part because many of expressed concerns that Verizon and similar data carriers are using emergency situations to effectively blackmail government agencies into agreeing to more expensive plans simply to prevent such setbacks in the future.
“In light of our experience, County Fire believes it is likely that Verizon will continue to use the exigent nature of public safety emergencies and catastrophic events to coerce public agencies into higher-cost plans, ultimately paying significantly more for mission-critical service—even if that means risking harm to public safety during negotiations,” Bowden wrote.
For their part, Verizon has expressed little in the way of regret, though they did characterize the incident as a “customer support mistake.”
“We made a mistake in how we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan,” Verizon responded. “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.”
“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.”
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