Like a teenager who streamed too many YouTube videos and pushed his family's usage above the limits of its data plan, the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District was being throttled by its internet service provider, Verizon.
In an addendum to a brief filed Monday as part of litigation supporting net-neutrality policies, Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden outlined his department's unsuccessful efforts to convince Verizon representatives to restore normal data speeds to OES Incident Support Unit 5262 (OES 5262) in response to the Mendocino Complex Fire, which is now the largest in California history.
The move comes in response to complaints by the Santa Clara Fire Department, which reported a slowdown in Verizon data service earlier this month while the agency was fighting the Mendocino Complex fire.
"We didn't live up to our own promise of service and performance excellence when our process failed some first responders on the line, battling a massive California wildfire", Mike Maiorana, a Verizon senior vice-president, said in a statement Friday.
In that statement, Verizon said it would be introducing a "new plan" with truly unlimited data and "priority access" for first responders nationwide. The company also admitted that the plan the fire department had purchased wasn't unlimited, and would begin throttling speeds upon using a certain quantity of data, but it had miscommunicated the terms of the plan.
"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 wrote.
Santa Clara County Fire Capt. Bill Murphy told CNN that the department's connection speed dropped to what you would expect from a dial-up service, making simple tasks like sending an email or updating a Google document nearly impossible.
Verizon will allow public safety workers, such as firefighters, police officers and Emergency Medical Services personnel - as well as the federal justice agencies, including the FBI, CIA and Secret Service - to have unlimited data with no price increases and data caps, said Tami Erwin, executive vice president of operations for Verizon Wireless. Full containment is expected come September.
Verizon was allowed to throttle data plans under the old net neutrality rules, according to Gigi Sohn. "We are reviewing the situation and will fix any issues going forward". In today's new statement, Verizon apologized to the department and added it has lifted all throttling caps for those firefighters, along with the emergency departments that are now dealing with the effects of Hurricane Lane in Hawaii.
Bowden said when he requested that Verizon restore data speeds, the company instead offered a data plan that was nearly twice as expensive.
He says he saw the writing on the wall on this issue previous year, and six months ago, filed suit against the Federal Communications Commission over cell companies common practice of throttling, or "speed capping", data.
He blamed an "operational error" for the company's failure to lift the data cap as soon as firefighters called.
He said agencies like his have a challenge: trying to predict how much data they'll need, and balancing it against their budget constraints. But the issue was exacerbated at the Mendocino Complex Fire in July, as the staff could not reach a Verizon accounts manager, despite multiple phone calls and emails, until a day later.