Verizon updates policy in response to Santa Clara Co. fire chief statements, Assembly hearing

By Bay City News Service

Verizon officials said they have made multiple policy changes in response to the Santa Clara County fire chief's criticism of the company for throttling data speeds while firefighters were battling the 400,000-acre Mendocino Complex fires.

Santa Clara County fire Chief Anthony Bowden's statement was included in a lawsuit filed against the Federal Communications Commission by Santa Clara County, the fire department, San Jose and multiple other parties in support of net neutrality.

Bowden said when he requested that Verizon restore data speeds, the company instead offered a data plan that was almost twice as expensive.

Firefighters were forced to use personal devices and other agency's internet providers to effectively communicate, and Bowden said data was only restored after the department upgraded to a new, more expensive plan.

“Responders rely on mobile connectivity to communicate response status, communicate orders, provide critical incident information, and develop action plans,” said Bowden.

Mike Maiorana, Verizon's senior vice president in the public sector, said the company has removed all speed caps for first responders fighting wildfires and those responding to Hurricane Lane in Hawaii. Verizon will introduce a new unlimited data plan for public safety employees and allow agencies to upgrade to the new plan at no cost next week, according to Maiorana.

"In supporting first responders in the Mendocino fire, we didn't live up to our own promise of service," he said in a statement. "For that, we are truly sorry. And we're making every effort to ensure that it never happens again."

Verizon spokeswoman Heidi Flato said initially that the company's response to Bowden was a "customer support mistake" and "has nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court."

The multi-party lawsuit says Verizon's actions were a consequence of the FCC's December 2017 repeal of net neutrality laws, which mandates equal access to all internet websites and allows the FCC greater control over internet service providers, like Verizon. 

The California State Assembly held an informational hearing today to discuss Verizon's actions, led by Select Committee on Natural Disaster, Response, Recovery, and Rebuilding co-chairs Marc Levine, D-San Rafael, and Monique Limon, D-Santa Barbara.

"In the same way we would never accept a water department shutting off hydrants to get a better, per-gallon price for water, we will never accept that public safety is left without the tools they need -- simply 
because a company has a pricing plan they want to maximize," Levine said.

He emphasized that the hearing was not meant to "castigate" a single company, but to protect public safety employees in the future.

Limon referenced the Thomas Fire, which burned over 280,000 acres in her district in December 2017. The blaze ranked second in size only to the Mendocino Complex fires, the largest in state history.

At the hearing, Bowden recounted a timeline of the fire and Verizon's response. Though firefighters devised a workaround for connectivity problems, he said, "I found the situation, personally, to be unacceptable." 

Because the Santa Clara County Fire Department covers seven cities and a large portion of the Santa Cruz mountains, it currently buys service from both Verizon and AT&T to increase redundancy in coverage areas.

“If folks are in a position to block or slow your access to information at a time of an emergency, that’s gonna have a bad consequence,” said Joe Simitian, president of the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors.

He says he saw the writing on the wall on this issue last year, and six months ago, filed suit against the Federal Communications Commission over cell companies common practice of throttling, or “speed capping,” data.

Bowden said his department has encountered data throttling during three different fires, including the Pawnee Fire in Lake County this summer. 

"I really truly hope that what comes out of this is a greater partnership in moving forward, that this does not happen again to any public agency," he said.

KTVU's Jesse Gary contributed to this report