Verizon admits mistake in throttling firefighters’ LTE speeds

Verizon said its customer service department made a mistake when it declined to lift a throttle on the wireless connections used by firefighters in the midst of battling a California wildfire. The topic stems from an ongoing battle over net neutrality and whether wireless carriers can adjust customers’ access speeds.

But for Verizon, the issue could grow into a major black eye for the company. After Ars Technica published a detailed report on the throttling situation—detailing firefighters' repeated attempts to lift Verizon's throttle on their unlimited data connections so that they could fight an ongoing wildfire—the article spread to a number of social media sites including the top of Reddit, one of the most-visited sites on the internet. The article generated more than 4,700 comments from users.

The issue is particularly concerning for Verizon because the company is in a rough battle with AT&T over the public safety sector. AT&T, through its new contract with FirstNet, is going after the public safety sector with services it argues are specifically tailored for police, firefighters and others.

Throttling, of course, is a widely used tactic by wireless operators so that they can offer “unlimited” services. Many of the world's wireless network operators offer some sort of unlimited service, but the caveat is that they slow users’ connections after those users pass a certain usage threshold, often 20 GB or 50 GB of usage in a month.

“We made a mistake in how we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan,” a Verizon representative wrote in response to questions about the Ars Technica story and Reddit post. “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.”

Nonetheless, the firefighters’ statements on the topic are compelling.

"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," Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden wrote, as noted by Ars Technica. "These reduced speeds severely interfered with the OES 5262's ability to function effectively. My Information Technology staff communicated directly with Verizon via email about the throttling, requesting it be immediately lifted for public safety purposes."

Continued Bowden: "Verizon representatives confirmed the throttling, but rather than restoring us to an essential data transfer speed, they indicated that County Fire would have to switch to a new data plan at more than twice the cost, and they would only remove throttling after we contacted the department that handles billing and switched to the new data plan."

Bowden's statement was submitted in an addendum to a brief filed by 22 states seeking to overturn the FCC’s recent repeal of net neutrality rules. As noted by The Verge, the states argued the FCC failed to properly consider the issues when removing the policy last year.