Fire department claims Verizon throttled data during California wildfires

The Santa Clara County Fire Department is accusing internet service provider Verizon of throttling their internet speeds and limiting their ability to fight the Mendocino Complex fire.

Their claim is part of a legal challenge to the FCC’s repeal of Net Neutrality rules. 

When Santa Clara County firefighters were called to the Mendocino Complex Fire, their priority is to save lives and property. However, they said, their mission was severely impacted after their internet service in one of their units used to track and route firefighting services was significantly reduced to slower than dial-up speed. They said it made it difficult for them to send an email or transfer files over the internet.

“If the speeds are impacted to the point at which those simple functions are impacted that's certainly frustrating for crews,” said Santa Clara County Fire Captain Bill Murphy. 

The department said Verizon slowed their data to 1/200 of normal speed after they used too much bandwidth. 

Verizon suggested a more expensive plan. The crew resolved the issue by using a different router from a different service provider. The department worries how data throttling could affect residents in a fire zone.

“We’re sending time-sensitive critical information. 'Evacuate this area now,'” said Capt. Murphy. “If the public can't receive those notices in a timely fashion, it certainly could impact their ability to get out of an area we've determined as dangerous quickly.”

Their concerns are aired in court documents part of a lawsuit filed by Santa Clara County along with 22 other states against the FCC’s repeal of Net Neutrality rules that ensure free open internet access.

“We’ve lost our protections and instead handled the keys to the internet service providers so the internet service providers they get to decide how they want to prioritize content, they get to determine speed and access,” said Santa Clara County Counsel James Williams. 

Verizon issued a response that said in part, “This situation has nothing to do with Net Neutrality or the current proceeding in court. We made a mistake in how we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan. In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us.”

Verizon also said it is reviewing the situation and will fix any issues moving forward. As for the lawsuit, a decision in the case isn't expected until early next year.