Verizon's throttling of firefighter data during California fire raises net neutrality concerns

This isn't really about net neutrality, but that's not stopping supporters to express their concerns over the power of internet service providers.

Steven Musil Night Editor / News
Steven Musil is the night news editor at CNET News. He's been hooked on tech since learning BASIC in the late '70s. When not cleaning up after his daughter and son, Steven can be found pedaling around the San Francisco Bay Area. Before joining CNET in 2000, Steven spent 10 years at various Bay Area newspapers.
Expertise I have more than 30 years' experience in journalism in the heart of the Silicon Valley.
Steven Musil
4 min read
Mendocino-Complex Fire In Northern California Grows To Largest Fire In State's History

Firefighters monitor a back fire as they battle the Mendocino Complex fire earlier this month near Lodoga, California.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Verizon Wireless says a customer service error -- not a violation of  net neutrality -- was responsible for the continued throttling of the wireless data service of a fire department vehicle during a recent battle of a California wildfire.

But that hasn't stopped net neutrality supporters from pointing at the incident as an example of the kind of potential treatment that internet and wireless service providers can offer now that the rules for governing an open internet are stripped away. 

The issue cropped up on Monday after the Santa Clara Fire Department said in a court filing that while it was helping fight the Mendocino Complex fire -- the largest wildfire in the state's history -- the crew assigned to one of the department's trucks saw its service dramatically impeded.

"County Fire has experienced throttling by its ISP, Verizon," Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden wrote in the filing, reported on earlier by Ars Technica. "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."

While Verizon insists that this mistake had nothing to do with net neutrality, the incident has been linked to the issue. During a Wednesday discussion by a California state assembly committee of a proposed net neutrality bill, one of the assemblymen brought up the Verizon issue as a concern and one reason why he supported stronger regulations. The firefighter incident has sparked a lot of anger at Verizon, which makes it easy to link the issue with the emotionally charged debate over net neutrality. 

Ultimately, this isn't a net neutrality issue. This incident dealt with firefighters exceeding their limit of data, while net neutrality deals with how different kinds of traffic or content is treated. Verizon wasn't playing favorites when it came to the data that the firefighters received. It -- wrongly, by its own admission -- slowed down the connection because of the volume of data, not the specific type. Those nuances sometimes get lost in the heated argument over net neutrality. 

The fire department paid for an unlimited plan from Verizon but suffered heavy throttling until it agreed to pay more for another plan, according to an addendum to a legal brief filed by 22 state attorneys general that seeks to overturn the rollback of net neutrality rules earlier this year by the FCC.

"The Internet has become an essential tool in providing fire and emergency response, particularly for events like large fires which require the rapid deployment and organization of thousands of personnel and hundreds of fire engines, aircraft, and bulldozers," Bowden wrote.

Watch this: What is Net neutrality? Godzilla helps explain

The throttling affected "OES 5262," a command and control vehicle that helps track and deploy firefighter resources around the state and country where there's the greatest need, Bowden said.

"In the midst of our response to the Mendocino Complex Fire, County Fire discovered the data connection for OES 5262 was being throttled by Verizon, and data rates had been reduced to 1/200, or less, than the previous speeds," Bowden wrote. "These reduced speeds severely interfered with the OES 5262's ability to function effectively."

Bowden said his staff communicated with Verizon about the throttling but was told by representatives for the wireless carrier the throttling would continue until the unit switched to a new data plan that cost twice the previous plan.

In a statement Tuesday, Verizon acknowledged it erred in continuing to throttle the unit's data service after the department requested restrictions be lifted, calling it a miscommunication unrelated to net neutrality. Verizon said in a statement:

Like all customers, fire departments choose service plans that are best for them. This customer purchased a government contract plan for a high-speed wireless data allotment at a set monthly cost. Under this plan, users get an unlimited amount of data but speeds are reduced when they exceed their allotment until the next billing cycle. Regardless of the plan emergency responders choose, we have a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations. 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.

Late Monday, attorneys general of 22 states and the District of Columbia filed a brief urging a US Appeals Court to reverse the Federal Communications Commission's rollback of Obama-era rules governing an open internet. The wave of support underscores the notion that while the net neutrality rules are gone, the push to bring them back isn't. On Wednesday, that California committee opted to push forward that state net neutrality bill over the objections of companies such as Verizon, AT&T and Comcast. 

The story originally published on Aug. 21 at 9:44 p.m. PT. 

Update, Aug. 23 at 9:25 a.m. PT: To include additional details and discussion over net neutrality.

Net neutrality supporters take protest to Verizon stores

See all photos

Cambridge Analytica: Everything you need to know about Facebook's data mining scandal.

iHate: CNET looks at how intolerance is taking over the internet.