Plenty of consumers have run into mobile data caps, and the availability of “unlimited” plans doesn’t guarantee you a truly unlimited experience. Carriers still regularly throttle users who consume what the carrier considers “too much” data, and a California fire department can tell you how frustrating that is. While personnel from the Santa Clara Fire Department were busy fighting wildfires in California, they were also forced to fight Verizon to get enough bandwidth for their equipment.
Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden filed a legal brief in support of 22 state attorneys general who are seeking the reversal of the recent net neutrality repeal. In his statement, Bowden explains how Verizon essentially crippled one of the department’s vehicles, which uses a Verizon mobile LTE hotspot. The vehicle, designated OES 5262, is a mobile command and control center the department deploys to dangerous areas. On June 29th of this year, fire department officials realized the vehicle’s LTE connection had dropped to 0.5 percent of its usual speed. This made it impossible to effectively coordinate resources attempting to control the wildfires.
According to Bowden, the department was paying Verizon for “unlimited” data on the LTE hotspot, but the line had crossed 25GB in a single billing cycle. That’s when Verizon begins throttling lines, but that’s technically only supposed to happen when the network is congested. Bowden claims this was a full, across-the-board downgrade in service. After contacting Verizon, the department was told the throttling would not be lifted until it moved the line to a new plan that cost twice as much. The department eventually relented when the same thing happened during the next billing cycle as the department worked to contain the Mendocino fire.
This event took place shortly after the FCC’s net neutrality repeal went into effect. While throttling was allowed before the repeal, it’s important here for two reasons. First, the net neutrality complaint system was scrapped along with the regulations, eliminating an important avenue for the department to get its concerns addressed. More importantly, the net neutrality repeal was sold by FCC chair Ajit Pai as a way to ensure critical services like fire departments could get the bandwidth and network priority they needed. That doesn’t seem to be the case.
Verizon claims to have a policy of lifting throttling restrictions for emergency services upon request, but that didn’t happen here. Verizon says it’s investigating. In addition, Verizon admits that it made a mistake in communicating the terms of the plan. That’s no surprise. Just like with its consumer plans, Verizon is calling its plans “unlimited” when they clearly are not.