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Verizon quashed communications for firefighters, court records show

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Communications conglomerate insisted Santa Clara County buy more expensive data plan to administrate wildfire response

Record Heat Fuels Holy Fire In Southern California, Threatening Homes Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images

In quite possibly the single most horrifying customer service ordeal in human history, Northern California firefighters found themselves working with limited communications while battling July wildfires because Internet service provider Verizon kept cutting off the fire district’s data access.

Ars Technica discovered the shocking account as part of the evidence submitted in an ongoing federal court case concerning net neutrality.

In the paperwork, Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden testifies that although the county had purchased an allegedly unlimited data plan from New York-based telecommunications conglomerate Verizon, it discovered at the worst possible time that “unlimited” doesn’t actually mean what you’d think it means.

Bowden’s account reads in part:

A key responsibility ofemergency responders, and of County Fire is tracking resources and ensuring they get to the right place as quickly and safely as possible. County Fire, like virtually all other emergency responders, relies heavily on the Internet to do both of these things.

[...] County Fire has experienced throttling by its ISP, Verizon. 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.

In an email exchange between County Fire and Verizon’s customer service, fire officials complain that their mobile communications rig—”basically a fire engine [...] with tools and equipment that is used to support incident operations at major emergencies and/or disasters”—keeps crapping out on them.

At the time the department was assisting with wildfires across Northern California, including eventually the Mendocino Complex Fire, the largest in California history. Bowden says fire admin found itself unable to communicate effectively with crews.

Unbelievably, a Verizon rep responded to complaints by saying, “Verizon has always reserved the right to limit data throughput on unlimited plans. All unlimited data plans offered by Verizon have some sort of data throttling built-in.”

Mendocino-Complex Fire In Northern California Grows To Largest Fire In State’s History
The Mendocino Complex Fire, August 8.
Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Eventually, through a long exchange of messages, fire personnel managed to secure a data plan that would not subject them to data throttling, a deal reserved for emergency services.

However, this meant upgrading to a plan that was twice as expensive, and the entire ordeal stretched from June 29 to July 30, even as nearly half of California was burning.

Bowden testifies that he “communicated directly with Verizon via email about the throttling, requesting it be immediately lifted for public safety purposes.” But the ISP still insisted on sticking to the letter of its data plan.

In the meantime fire crews had to use other means to communicate, including just their own personal calling plans.

In a statement to Ars Technica, Verizon said that it actually does have a policy of suspending data throttling for emergency situations, but that due to a “customer support mistake” fire officials didn’t get the waiver when they should have.

“In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us,” a Verizon rep said.

No kidding.