Verizon: Calif. fire dept's data speed throttled during wildfire due to 'mistake'

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Rep. Duncan Hunter, (R-Calif.), on the wildfires in California.

Verizon Wireless said Wednesday a miscommunication led to a “throttling” of phone data speed that impeded a California fire department’s efforts to coordinate resources while battling a wildfire earlier this summer, starting a dispute that could impact a lawsuit that seeks to reinstate net neutrality rules.

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The Santa Clara County fire department accuses the internet service provider of slowing down service on its devices despite knowledge that the slowdown was making it difficult for firefighters to coordinate resources as they fought the blaze. The county’s claim was submitted in a brief filed by lawyers for 22 states fighting to reverse the Federal Communications Commission’s decision last December to end net neutrality.

Critics have long argued that the removal of Obama-era net neutrality rules, which required providers to treat all data equally in terms of pricing and service, would enable providers like Verizon to “throttle” connection speeds to entice customers to pay for better service. However, Verizon said the slowdown in Santa Clara had “nothing to do” with net neutrality, adding that speeds were mistakenly reduced when the fire department exceeded the usage terms in its monthly plan.

“We made a mistake in how we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan. … Regardless of the plan emergency responders choose, we have a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations,” Verizon said in a statement. “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,” the statement added.

Santa Clara County Fire Chief Tony Bowden said data speeds slowed to 1/200th of their normal speed once the data limit was reached. Ultimately, the department opted to pay for a more expensive plan.

ARS Technica was first to report the details of the fire department’s allegations.

"Verizon's throttling has everything to do with net neutrality—it shows that the ISPs will act in their economic interests, even at the expense of public safety," Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams said in a statement to the website. "That is exactly what the Trump Administration's repeal of net neutrality allows and encourages."

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