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Verizon's Super Bowl ad honors first responders months after throttling incident

Santa Clara firefighters say the carrier slowed their data service to a crawl during the California wildfires.

Mendocino-Complex Fire In Northern California Grows To Largest Fire In State's History

The Santa Clara Fire Department said Verizon throttled their internet access while they were helping fight the Medocino Complex fire in California. The Mendocino Complex Fire burned more than 280,000 acres and destroyed at least 75 homes.

Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

Verizon thanked the first responder community in a new ad campaign that debuted during the Super Bowl Sunday night, months after the company was criticized for throttling California firefighters' internet access as they battled one of the state's largest wildfires,

The ad includes interviews with first responders and NFL players who had experienced their own emergency situations in which first responders aided them. The ad ends with the message: "First responders answer the call. Our job is to make sure they can get it." The ad is part of a larger video campaign, in which Verizon interviews 12 NFL athletes and coaches retelling their own stories of how first responders helped them.

This is not the first time Verizon has run ads during the Super Bowl to thank first responders. It also did so in 2018. But this year's campaign raised eyebrows after a much publicized incident with the Santa Clara Fire Department, which came to light as part of a lawsuit challenging the FCC's 2017 repeal of Obama-era net neutrality rules.

According to the court filing submitted in August, the Santa Clara Fire Department said while it was helping fight the Mendocino Complex fire, crews dispatched to coordinate resources in the field saw dramatic declines in their wireless speeds. The fire department had exceeded its data cap and Verizon had slowed down its service to a crawl. When department officials called the company, they were told by customer service that they needed to upgrade the service in order to reinstate full access to the internet.

After the issue appeared in court documents, Verizon publicly apologized, stating it had been a customer service error -- not a violation of net neutrality. On Monday, Verizon spokesman Rich Young reiterated that point.

"What happened in Santa Clara was a one-time, isolated incident," he said. "During the incident in Santa Clara, we made a mistake in failing to follow our own practice to waive data restrictions when the issue first came up."

Young added that since Verizon became aware of the throttling incident, it's taken steps to ensure that regardless of the plan they're on, first responders will not encounter data restrictions during a declared emergency. The company has also introduced a new plan for first responders that does not include restrictions.  The company has a dedicated website of special offerings for first responders, including discounted plans and discounts on accessories.

But the timing of the Super Bowl ads showing appreciation for first responders was somewhat awkward, as only days before an attorney for the Santa Clara Fire Department was in federal court as part of the oral arguments in the case challenging the repeal of the net neutrality rules.

The case pits Mozilla and several other internet companies, such as Etsy and Reddit, as well as 22 state attorneys general against the Republican-led FCC.  The Santa Clara Fire Department joined the lawsuit following the Verizon throttling incident. Even though the Santa Clara firefighters have conceded that Verizon didn't violate net neutrality principles, their attorney argued the incident illustrates the lack of protections for public safety since net neutrality was repealed.

"There's nothing stopping companies from putting first responders at the back of the line, especially if they offer a commercial paid priority service," Stephanie Weiner, who represented the firefighters in the oral arguments, said as she argued that the FCC should have made provisions for public safety in its order.

But Verizon says it's always supported the first responder community and will continue to do so.

"The Santa Clara situation had nothing to do with net neutrality," Young said. "We're strongly committed to providing reliable services to public safety users, especially during times of emergency.  We're continually working with them in providing multiple options to best fit their needs."

Verizon is also working with and raising money for the Gary Sinise Foundation, which offers financial support to first responders and their families. As part of its first responder appreciation campaign, the company said it's donating $1.5 million to the foundation and on top of that will also contribute $1 whenever the Verizon ad campaign is mentioned on social media. 

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