Verizon Faces Heat Following Fire Department’s Data ‘Throttling’ During Blazes

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Emails describe wireless speeds so slow there was “no meaningful functionality,” raising questions as the company attempts to compete for first responders’ business.

Verizon is facing public relations and political concerns after emails came to light showing the company restricted broadband data for first responders fighting California wildfires this summer. The incident has attracted scrutiny from congressional lawmakers, state officials, and harsh media attention at a time when the company is fiercely competing with a federally-backed nationwide public safety network, known as FirstNet, for business.

Santa Clara County Fire Department officials say vehicles they were using as they battled the the Pawnee Fire in Lake County, as well as the Mendocino Complex Fire, which is the largest ever to burn in California, had broadband speeds slowed, or “throttled,” to the point that data was flowing at speeds on par with the service from an “AOL dial up modem from 1995.”

Throttling is when a wireless company scales back data transfer speeds. Fast broadband service has become increasingly crucial for first responders during crises as communications technology becomes ingrained in responding to and managing emergencies.

When department leadership reached out to Verizon to inform them “that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services,” their representative told them to upgrade their plans and to call a customer service line to buy additional data, according to emails included in court documents filed this week by 23 state attorneys general regarding the Federal Communications Commission’s rollback of net neutrality rules.

In one email included in the court filing, a Verizon representative told the fire department that, the company “always reserved the right to limit data throughput on unlimited plans.”

A company official told Route Fifty on Monday that public sector data plans, like any customer contract, have speed limitations when customers hit certain data-use thresholds.

But the official also said the way the account representative handled the issue with the fire department was a mistake. Before or during a major event first responders can contact Verizon, who will verify the event and ensure they have the data capacity they need, the official said.

As of publication, Verizon had not responded to follow-up questions about why the caps existed in the first place, or whether Verizon has a plan for supporting first responders who experience throttling during unforeseen incidents, such as a school shooting or terrorist attack.

Following the attorneys general filing, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and 12 of her colleagues from Northern California sent a letter on Friday to the Federal Trade Commission Chair requesting an investigation into whether Verizon is being “unfair or deceptive in the services they’re offering to public safety entities.”

Beyond legal concerns, the controversy comes at a time of fierce competition for public safety customers between Verizon and AT&T.

In March 2017, the federal government awarded AT&T $6.5 billion and access to prized wireless spectrum as part of a contract to build out and operate the FirstNet network. Verizon did not put forward a bid in the competition to build the network.

FirstNet was authorized by Congress in 2012 “to develop, build and operate the nationwide, broadband network that equips first responders to save lives and protect U.S. communities.”

This March, on the anniversary of winning the contract, AT&T officially announced that the FirstNet portion of its network was live. Hours later, Verizon announced its own “dedicated private core” for first responders was going online on its network.

In a statement touting its new public safety core at the time, Verizon declared that it would provide priority service during times of heavy commercial network congestion and preemption authority that would allow public safety users “to maintain communications when they need it most.”

Following the news surrounding Verizon’s stumble in California, Ed Parkinson, FirstNet’s director of government affairs, linked to an article regarding the incident from his Twitter account, adding “FirstNet doesn't throttle. Period.”

Mitch Herckis is Senior Editor and Director of Strategic Initiatives for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C. 

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