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Verizon throttled California firefighters and it wasn’t the first time

The Santa Clara County Fire Department has identified three instances of throttling.

Mendocino-Complex Fire In Northern California
Firefighters battle the Medocino Complex fire earlier this month. 
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

The Santa Clara County Fire Department has been here before. 

At a hearing before the California State Assembly on Friday, Fire Chief Tony Bowden said Verizon had throttled data for firefighters twice before a recent event in which the network operator slowed data speeds for first responders at the Mendocino Complex fire.

"We've had three instances with this specific unit of identified throttling," Bowden said. He added that it's not uncommon for firefighters to switch between phones to contact their families, based on their ability to access data. 

Verizon drew widespread criticism for throttling data for first responders fighting the huge Mendocino fire. The revelations emerged from a court filing this week. Verizon said the incident was the result of a customer service error.

"We take full ownership and accountability for that," David Hickey, Verizon's vice president of business sales, said at the hearing.

The incident has become wrapped up in California's debate over net neutrality although they're unrelated. During a Wednesday meeting over a proposed state net neutrality bill, an assemblyman used the Verizon incident as a reason for supporting stronger regulations.

The Mendocino throttling incident dealt with firefighters exceeding their data limits. That's different from net neutrality, which deals with how different kinds of traffic or content are treated. In Verizon's case, the company slowed down the connection because of the volume of data, not the type. 

Verizon reiterated this distinction at Friday's hearing. 

"This issue is not about net neutrality," Hickey said. "These are two completely separate situations."

Bowden, the fire chief, noted that along with Verizon, the agency also has service through AT&T

"It's critical that we do have two providers for redundancy, based on the sporadic need of our industry," Bowden said.

Verizon on Friday said it's lifted all speed caps for first responders on the West Coast battling wildfires, in addition to emergency workers in Hawaii, who are dealing with Hurricane Lane. In the event of another disaster, the company added, it'll lift restrictions on public safety customers. Verizon said it also plans to introduce a plan next week for first responders with unlimited data, no mobile caps and priority access. 

"While there were mistakes, it was also very evident that our public safety can't live without the product," said California State Assembly member Monique Limon at the hearing. "That's part of the necessity to try to figure out how to move forward."