Verizon produces ad touting their services for first responders after throttling becomes an issue

While fighting one of the largest wildfires in California’s recorded history, the company reduced the data rate for a fire department’s account to 1/200th of normal.

Mendocino Complex of Fires
The Mendocino Complex of Fires. Mendocino County Sheriff’s Office photo.

Six weeks after the Santa Clara Fire Department said Verizon reduced their data rate for a command and control unit to 1/200th of normal while fighting a huge fire, the company has purchased time on television networks with a commercial titled “Enabling Heroes”.

The commercial which ran during a football game this weekend showing people that are represented as firefighters, has a spokesmodel saying, “In times of crisis their calls go through and they can get their jobs done”, and the company has “a dedicated lane on our network just for first responders”.

The fire department personnel staffing Santa Clara’s OES Incident Support Unit 5262 earlier this year while battling the Mendocino Complex of Fires, one of the largest blazes in the history of California, knew they had an unlimited data plan for the equipment used to track, organize, and prioritize routing of resources from around the state and country to the sites where they are most needed.

While fighting the fire the department discovered the Verizon data connection for the command and control unit was being throttled. Data rates had been reduced to 1/200th, or less, of the previous speeds. Fire Chief Anthony Bowden wrote in a court filing that the “reduced speeds severely interfered with the OES 5262’s ability to function effectively”. The County has signed on to a legal effort to overturn the Federal Communication Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules.

While the fire was burning, the department explained to Verizon the problem and asked the company to restore their data capability, but it did not happen quickly. After going around and around for a while, eventually the department’s administrative section had to work with Verizon and sign up for a different plan.

In the last couple of years the four major cell phone providers have advertised “unlimited” data plans, but they ARE ALL LIMITED in various ways.

The department thought their plan described as “unlimited” actually meant that. Critics say they should have read the fine print in their contract, while others say Verizon should have immediately restored their data and worried about the contract issues later after the smoke cleared. A comment in one of our articles about this issue looked as if it could have been written by a lobbyist for Verizon.

Verizon feels the pressure, says will provide unlimited data to emergency services

The company throttled the data being used by a Santa Clara Fire Department Command and Control vehicle that was fighting the Mendocino Complex of Fires

s2t airtanker holy fire
An S-2T air tanker comes out of the smoke to drop retardant near the communication towers on Santiago Peak August 8, 2018 as the Holy Fire in Orange County, California approaches. HPWREN image. Click to enlarge.

When executives from Verizon were summoned to California’s capitol Friday to sit for a tongue lashing by an Assembly Committee, the company announced that just hours before, they had changed their policy about limited vs. “unlimited” data for cell phone accounts used by emergency first responders. They had attracted an enormous amount of criticism after the Verizon account used by a Command and Control vehicle working on the Mendocino Complex of Fires in Northern California was victim to having their data rate reduced to 1/200th of their regular rate.

According to The Verge:

The company says it has since removed all speed cap restrictions for first responders on the West Coast and in Hawaii, with the plan to continue doing so during future disasters. Verizon will also launch a new service plan next week that’ll cater to first responders and will feature unlimited data with no caps on mobile solutions. That plan will include priority access.

The Command and Control vehicle’s primary function is to track, organize, and prioritize routing of resources from around the state and country to the sites where they are most needed. OES 5262 relies heavily on the internet to do near-real-time resource tracking.

The Santa Clara Fire Department that operates OES 5262 had a Verizon plan advertised as having “unlimited data”. However the fine print in the contract allowed Verizon to throttle the Fire Department’s data to a fraction of the regular rate after a limit was reached.

While fighting the fire, one of the captains operating the equipment complained to Verizon that the command and control unit had been so hobbled that “it has no meaningful functionality”. The battle with the fire morphed into a fight with Verizon as fire department personnel fought with the company about restoring their “unlimited” data rate. Eventually after getting various sections in Verizon and the Fire Department involved, the cell phone plan in OES 5262 was upgraded to a more expensive plan that had more capability.

In a perfect world the fire department might have known in advance that their “unlimited data” was a gross deception by Verizon and could have switched to a more expensive plan that perhaps didn’t have such severe throttling issues. Or, Verizon would not have described the plan as unlimited, since it wasn’t.  Or, Verizon could have un-throttled them very quickly after receiving the department’s first complaint and worked out the details later. But none of that happened.

On August 22 in our article about the throttling, we wrote:

The intentionally misleading use of the term “unlimited” by the four cell phone carriers is part of the problem here. The FCC and the Federal Trade Commission should do their job and stop this practice.

The issue has also fired up politicians in Washington. In a letter to the FTC signed August 24 by Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi of San Francisco and 12 other representatives, they wrote.

…Unfortunately, with its repeal of the 2015 Open Internet Order, the FCC has abdicated its jurisdiction over broadband communications and walked away from protecting consumers, including public safety agencies. We, therefore, call on the FTC to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive acts or practices stemming from this incident.

It is unacceptable for communications providers to deceive their customers, but when the consumer in question is a government entity tasked with fire and emergency services, we can’t afford to wait a moment longer. The FTC must investigate whether Verizon and other communications companies are being unfair or deceptive in the services they’re offering to public safety entities, and if so, to determine what remedies are appropriate to ensure our first responders have adequate service when lives are on the line.

Fire department says Verizon’s throttling of data hampered suppression of California’s largest fire in history

The data rate for a command and control unit was reduced to 1/200th of the previous speed

cell phone towerVerizon’s throttling of data rates used by a fire department that subscribed to one of the company’s “unlimited” plans hampered the firefighters’ command and control at the fire.

While battling the Mendocino Complex, which has become the largest wildfire in the recorded history of California, the Santa Clara Fire Department deployed OES Incident Support Unit 5262, a command and control resource. Its primary function is to track, organize, and prioritize routing of resources from around the state and country to the sites where they are most needed. OES 5262 relies heavily on the internet to do near-real-time resource tracking.

This unit and other resources in Santa Clara County use web-based applications that rely on high-bandwidth, latency-sensitive exchanges of information with the public and to provide crucial public safety services.

While fighting the fire the County discovered the Verizon data connection for OES 5262 was being throttled. Data rates had been reduced to 1/200th, or less, than the previous speeds. Fire Chief Anthony Bowden wrote in a court filing that the “reduced speeds severely interfered with the OES 5262’s ability to function effectively”. The County has signed on to a legal effort to overturn the Federal Communication Commission’s repeal of net neutrality rules.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the San Francisco Chronicle:

Despite having paid for what it thought was an unlimited data plan, the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District saw its data flow “throttled” down to 1/200th of its usual speed as it fought the complex — now the biggest wildfire in state history — because Verizon officials said it had exceeded its plan limit, district Fire Chief Anthony Bowden wrote. This primarily hampered a specialized vehicle the department depends on to coordinate its machinery and staff in such emergencies, and Bowden said that put his battalions at risk.

Without full-speed service for the high-tech command and communications rig, which goes by the arcane name of OES 5262, Bowden wrote, “resources could be deployed to the wrong fire, the wrong part of a fire, or fail to be deployed at all. Even small delays in response translate into devastating effect, including loss of property, and, in some cases, loss of life.

One of the fire captains complained to Verizon that the command and control unit had been so hobbled that “it has no meaningful functionality”.

The battle with the fire morphed into a battle with Verizon as fire department personnel fought with the company about restoring their “unlimited” data rate. Eventually after getting various sections in Verizon and the Fire District involved, the cell phone plan in OES 5262 was upgraded to a more expensive plan that had more capability.

In the last couple of years all four major cell phone providers have advertised “unlimited” data plans. All of them ARE LIMITED in various ways, so it is inconceivable how the Federal Trade Commission lets them get away with false and misleading advertising.

An article published by C|NET on August 9 does a good job of comparing “unlimited” plans offered by Verizon, Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T. Of the 10 plans described, all except one have data limits, while the one that does not, limits speed used on hotspots to only 3G. Everyone is now used to 4G speeds or the even faster LTE. 5G, with much higher data rates, is just around the corner. The companies disguise how speeds will be greatly reduced after a data limit is obtained, by using words like “prioritize your data”, “deprioritized”, or just blatantly saying “customer may temporarily experience reduced speeds on these line(s) during times of network congestion”. It likely that during an emergency that affects a large number of citizens, “network congestion” will occur.

We have written many times about the “Holy Grail of Wildland Firefighting Safety”, knowing the real time location of the fire and firefighters. Depending on how these systems are configured they could rely on data delivered through the internet. If that data stream is throttled to 1/200th, is cut off, or becomes unreliable, the safety of firefighters and the public could be threatened.

The intentionally misleading use of the term “unlimited” by the four cell phone carriers is part of the problem here. The FCC and the Federal Trade Commission should do their job and stop this practice.