Fire chief’s comments in court filing outline throttling of comms outpost’s data connection

While responding to the largest wildfire in California’s history, Santa Clara County firefighters ran up against the fact that “unlimited” wireless plans don’t usually mean unlimited LTE speeds, leaving them with a coordination outpost that was functionally useless without LTE access, according to a court filing.

Anthony Bowden is fire chief of the Santa Clara County Fire Department and also serves as fire marshal for the county. In comments to the FCC, Bowden said that as his department responded to and helped coordinate the massive public safety response to the Mendocino fire complex, “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.”

Bowden’s comments were filed as part of a petition for the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. circuit to review the Federal Communications Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules.

His department, Bowden said, uses “specialized software and Google Sheets to do near-real-time resource tracking through the use of cloud computing over the internet.” It uses a deployable unit — a specially outfitted fire truck, connected by a Cradlepoint router — to coordinate resources in the field. While the unit can sit unused for months at a time, Bowden said, when it goes into use it goes through 5-10 GB of data per day and requires high-speed connectivity.

“Near-real-time information exchange is vital to proper function. In large and complex fires, resource allocation requires immediate information,” Bowden said. “Dated or stale information regarding the availability or need for resources can slow response times and render them far less effective. Resources could be deployed to the wrong fire, the wrong part of a fire, or fail to be deployed at all. Even small delays in response translate into devastating effects, including loss of property, and, in some cases, loss of life.”

Santa Clara County Fire personnel discovered that the unit’s data connection was being throttled through a side-by-side comparison of a crew member’s personal Verizon device — which was receiving network speeds of 20 Mbps/7 Mbps, while the department’s Verizon-connected router had speeds of 0.2 Mbps/0.6 Mbps, “meaning it [had]no meaningful functionality,” according to the filing.

Verizon was notified of the throttling and the public safety use which the unit served, but the throttling issue wasn’t resolved until the department signed on to a higher-cost plan, according to Bowden. In the past, according to emails included with Bowden’s comment, the department has received assurances from Verizon that public safety usage would not be throttled during emergency response situations.

“County Fire personnel were forced to use other agencies’ Internet Service Providers and their own personal devices to provide the necessary connectivity and data transfer capability required by [the unit]. While Verizon ultimately did lift the throttling, it was only after County Fire subscribed to a new, more expensive plan,” Bowden said. “County Fire believes it is likely that Verizon will continue to use the exigent nature of public safety emergencies and catastrophic events to coerce public agencies into higher cost plans ultimately paying significantly more for mission critical service–even if that means risking harm to public safety during negotiations.”

In the emails which Bowden included with his filing between the department and Verizon, Santa Clara personnel asked the carrier to work with them and provide “a plan that does not offer throttling or caps of any kind.” The Verizon rep that the department was working with noted that “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. … Verizon does offer plans with no data throughput limitations; these plans require that the customer pay by the GB for use beyond a certain set allotment.”

The department was offered a plan of $99.99 per month for the first 20 GB and $8 per GB after that, with all data at LTE speeds, compared to the $37.99 per month plan “unlimited data plan” options that the department had been relying on for its service, or a $39.99 “unlimited” plan which it was considering. On both of the lower-cost plans, data speeds were cut drastically after 25 GB of use. According to the email exchanges, SCC Fire also ran into issues with the same device being throttled while responding to a fire in December 2017.

RCR Wireless News has reached out to Verizon for comment. Responding to Ars Technica on this situation, Verizon issued a statement saying that “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.”

Verizon also said that the situation had “nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court.” Under net neutrality rules, network providers were still allowed to slow down users’ speeds based on the terms of their plan and the volume of data traffic they generated; net neutrality’s “throttling” provisions centered around deliberately slowing down different types of content, such as specific web sites or OTT video content — or charging more for prioritized access of specific content. In the past year, both Verizon and competitor FirstNet-AT&T have begun included prioritization of public safety traffic in their public-safety service offerings; they used to charge a few dollars per month extra for prioritization of authorized public safety users’ traffic.

RCR also contacted the AT&T-FirstNet to ask about its policy on throttling public safety users, and a spokesperson responded that the situation described by Bowden “reinforces the need for FirstNet, which does not throttle subscribers anywhere in the country.” (Emphasis FirstNet’s.)

According to the most recent update from CalFire’s Twitter account, the Mendocino Complex fire remains at more than 360,000 acres and is 67% contained.


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