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Firefighters: Verizon slowed mobile web speeds during Mendocino blaze

Firefighters set a backfire along a ridge in Colusa County, California, August 7 while fighting the Mendocino Complex Fire, which grew to the largest fire in the state's history. Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI

By Susan McFarland, UPI

As California firefighters battled the largest fire in the state's history, Verizon slowed wireless data speeds to a crawl, making it almost impossible for emergency personnel to use some of its high-tech tracking equipment.

Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden said emergency personnel heavily relies on Internet services to monitor fast-moving fires and coordinate resources.

The fire department has an unlimited government plan with Verizon, but the company slowed, or throttled, data speed once the agency reached a certain threshold, Bowden wrote in an Aug. 20 court filing.

"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 fuel engines, aircraft, and buIldozers," Bowden said.

The problem came to light this week in a brief that is part of a federal lawsuit filed by New York Attorney General Barbara D. Underwood and 22 other state attorneys general, arguing the Federal Communications Commission's 3-2 vote in December to scrap the previous net neutrality rules puts consumers at risk.

Keeping emergency personnel connected requires a lot of data. While battling the Mendocino Complex Fire, Bowden said his department's OES 5262 mobile communication center sent and received five to 10 gigabytes of data through a wireless router daily.

During that time, Verizon reduced speeds that slowed service to the equivalent of dial-up speeds. Santa Clara County Fire Capt. Bill Murphy told CNN simple tasks like sending an email or updating a Google document was almost impossible.

"Our concern is if that same type of throttling happens to the public in a large disaster or emergency," Murphy said.

Bowden said firefighters had to use other agencies' Internet connections or personal devices to communicate.

The court document included email correspondence between the fire department and Verizon before the Mendocino Fires started, showing the throttling problem and that Verizon did not lift the data caps until fire officials paid for a more expensive 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.

An FCC spokeswoman said companies should waive allotments during emergencies.

Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato said the company made a mistake and "will fix any issues going forward."

"Regardless of the plan emergency responders choose, we have a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations," she told CNN. "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."

Flato said the situation has nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court, but was a customer service issue.

Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams disputed Verizon's statement.

"Verizon's throttling has everything to do with net neutrality -- it shows that the ISPs will act in their economic interests, even at the expense of public safety," he said. "That is exactly what the Trump administration's repeal of Net Neutrality allows and encourages."

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