SAN FRANCISCO – As wildfires burned over a million acres in California this summer, one San Francisco Bay Area fire department used its cellphone network to coordinate trucks and personnel from all over the state – until the department reached its data limit and its service provider slowed down data speeds.
This week, in documents submitted as evidence in a lawsuit over the Federal Communications Commission's repeal of net neutrality rules, Santa Clara County Fire Chief Tony Bowden detailed how Verizon's rules over what happens when customers go over the data limits on its plans disrupted devices essential to his department for coordination of firefighting resources.
Bowden said in the declaration, first reported by "Ars Technica," that the Santa Clara County Fire Department had an unlimited data plan with Verizon but internet service slowed to 1/200th normal speed after the SCCFD reached 25 gigabytes of data usage.
Verizon refused to lift the restrictions on data speeds until the fire department upgraded to a more expensive service plan, Bowden said.
Slowing down data speeds after a customer reaches its monthly data limit is a common practice among internet service providers and cellular carriers that's known as throttling. Users can still access the cellular network for basic services like email or web browsing, but speeds are often too slow for activities like video streaming.
During a fire, the SCCFD deploys a vehicle called OES Incident Support Unit 5262, which uses "5-10 gigabytes of data per day via the Internet using a mobile router and wireless connection" to route resources where they're needed.
"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.
Bill Murphy, fire captain and public information officer at SCCFD, said firefighters use "what seem like routine internet tools – email and live docs" to communicate resource status and resource commitments among the many different organizations involved in fighting the Mendocino Complex Fire and other large wildfires plaguing California.
These tools were rendered useless to the SCCFD while data was being throttled. The department was forced to use other agencies' internet service providers, and some personnel had to use their personal devices for connectivity, Bowden said.
Verizon continued to slow data after SCCFD officials informed a company representative that the slowdown was impeding the fire department's ability to provide emergency response.
Emails included in the declaration show SCCFD staff communicating the issue with Verizon representatives starting June 29 and ending a month later.
The slowing stopped after the fire department paid Verizon for more data.
Bowden's declaration was filed as an addendum to a brief from 22 state attorneys general in a lawsuit seeking to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of the 2015 net neutrality rules.
The brief asserts that when the FCC struck down net neutrality rules, it failed to consider the public's need to access a free and open internet for government services.
"As with many private-sector services, large portions of critical infrastructure used by governments and utilities have moved to the Internet," the brief says. "Consumers' access to the open Internet is essential to the effective provision of these online services."
When Verizon slowed down the SCCFD's data speeds, it was evidence that, under new regulations post-net neutrality, internet service providers would prioritize their economic interests, "even in situations that implicate public safety," the petitioners in the lawsuit claim.
Verizon spokesperson Heidi Flato said in a statement to USA TODAY that the issue is not related to net neutrality court proceedings. Verizon has a practice for removing data restrictions during emergency situations, but this case was a customer service error, Flato said.
"In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us. This was a customer support mistake," the statement said.
The repeal of the Obama-era Open Internet Order ended the previous consumer protections that prevented Internet service providers from blocking or slowing legal traffic, or charging for faster delivery of some content. Under the new law, ISPs are required to disclose any blocking, throttling or prioritization of their own content or from their partners on customers' broadband connections, and more of the burden falls to the consumer to complain or simply switch providers. Verizon and other major telecom and Internet providers lobbied to overturn the old rules, saying they were unnecessarily burdensome.
Most of the arguments around the repeal have focused on whether the new rules will allow powerful ISPs to slow or cut off access to certain Internet sites -- not the industry's handling of customer data in its new "unlimited" data plans that slow speeds after a certain cap. The telecom carriers had throttled wireless plan users before the repeal of net neutrality rules, though they sometimes ran into opposition from the FCC.
Roger Entner, an analyst at Recon Analytics, said Verizon should've realized the fire department was on the wrong plan and upped the department's data during the wildfires.
But, he says, the change in rules did not give Verizon more opportunity to slow down individual customers' access. Verizon has always been able to slow down an individual consumer's data – because giving everyone unlimited data just isn't feasible.
The word unlimited has lost its meaning, Entner said. It's "turned from a word that has value and meaning to an empty shell."