Verizon Throttles California Firefighters While the State Burns

Verizon has caught heat after they apparently throttled the connection of California firefighters.

Network neutrality is currently a sore spot for American policy. While there has been a lot of back and forth ever since the laws were repealed last year, a recent story threatens to reignite tensions around the issue.

At the moment, California, like many other West Coast areas throughout North America, is currently experiencing a severe fire season. In California’s case, it is the worst fire season on record. While firefighters have been working around the clock putting out fires that threatens peoples homes, it seems that Verizon may have started a few figurative fires of their own.

Reports began surfacing earlier this month that Verizon had begun throttling the internet connections of various firefighters. While some might cast this as nothing more than a trivial matter, fire officials would disagree with such an assessment. From the report:

Verizon Wireless’ throttling of a fire department that uses its data services has been submitted as evidence in a lawsuit that seeks to reinstate federal net neutrality rules.

“County Fire has experienced throttling by its ISP, Verizon,” Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden wrote in a declaration. “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.”

Bowden’s declaration was submitted in an addendum to a brief filed by 22 state attorneys general, the District of Columbia, Santa Clara County, Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District, and the California Public Utilities Commission. The government agencies are seeking to overturn the recent repeal of net neutrality rules in a lawsuit they filed against the Federal Communications Commission in the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

The revelations caused a lot of push back from state lawmakers as well as everyday people. The heat from the public became too much for Verizon. In a follow-up story, it seems that Verizon decided that the decision was a mistake and removed the connection caps:

Verizon Wireless today said it has temporarily stopped throttling the data of firefighters and other first responders on the West Coast and in Hawaii and will soon introduce a new unlimited plan “with no caps” and with priority access for first responders.

“As of yesterday, we removed all speed cap restrictions for first responders on the West Coast and in Hawaii to support current firefighting and Hurricane Lane efforts,” Verizon’s announcement today said. “Further, in the event of another disaster, Verizon will lift restrictions on public safety customers, providing full network access.”

Next week, Verizon said it will provide full details on “a new plan that will feature unlimited data, with no caps on mobile solutions and automatically includes priority access.”

“We will make it easy to upgrade service at no additional cost,” Verizon said.

While the move is still being heavily criticized, observers say that this activity is now basically legal at the federal level thanks to the repeal of network neutrality rules. The Electronic Frontier Foundation weighed in on the matter:

People are mad about the revelation that Verizon throttled the wireless service of the Santa Clara Fire Department in the middle of fighting a massive fire. In response, Verizon is making the very narrow claim that this wasn’t a clear violation of the 2015 Open Internet Order’s ban on throttling. That intentionally misses the point. The 2015 order, by reclassifying ISPs under Title II of the Federal Communications Act, would have likely made what happened with the fire department illegal.

Under the 2015 Open Internet Order, the Federal Communications Commission did two things. First, it established that all broadband Internet service providers were common carriers subject to the federal laws that protect consumers, promote competition, and guard user privacy. Second, it established a set of “net neutrality” rules based on its Title II authority through the bright line rules of “no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization” as well as a general conduct rule.

So when the FCC repealed that order, it not just ended a ban on blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization, it also declared federal laws that would be directly applicable to Verizon’s conduct to no longer apply.

The EFF goes on to say that there doesn’t seem to be any meaningful way to investigate the ISP for such a practice despite the obvious public safety concerns that rose from this case. Still, they urged readers to continue to push for the Congressional Review Act. That would initiate the first steps to overturning the regulators decision to scrap the rules.

While this certainly places a dark cloud over any possible repercussions for Verizon over what they did, it seems some Democrats are at least trying to initiate a legal probe into what happened:

Thirteen Democratic members of Congress on Friday asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate Verizon’s recent throttling of the Santa Clara County Fire Department while it was fighting California’s largest-ever wildfire.

“Throttling directly violates core net neutrality principles,” the letter, led by US Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), said. “In light of the repeal of net neutrality, we urge you to investigate whether Verizon’s practices were ‘unfair or deceptive’ pursuant to Section 5 of the Federal Trade Commission Act.” The letter was sent to FTC Chairman Joseph Simons.

“It is unacceptable for communications providers to deceive their customers,” the Democrats wrote. “But when the consumer in question is a government entity tasked with fire and emergency services, we can’t afford to wait a moment longer. The FTC must investigate whether Verizon and other communications companies are being unfair or deceptive in the services they’re offering to public safety entities, and if so, to determine what remedies are appropriate to ensure our first responders have adequate service when lives are on the line.”

When contacted by Ars, an FTC spokesperson confirmed that the agency received the Democrats’ letter but said the FTC had no further comment.

Where such an effort would go is anyone’s guess at this point. Still, this latest case does show the damage caused by last years repeal. The fallout continues to be felt to this day.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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