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Verizon throttled firefighters' "unlimited" data during California fires, lawsuit claims

Firefighters say Verizon throttled cell data

A California fire chief said Verizon throttled his crew's Internet speed during a wildfire crisis to 1/200th of its original data plan, even though the fire department had an "unlimited" plan. 

Verizon's action "severely interfered with the [fire crew's] ability to function effectively" during the Mendocino Complex fire, a wildfire currently half the size of Rhode Island, Santa Clara County fire chief Anthony Bowden said in a legal filing. When his department called Verizon to ask that the company cease throttling its data, the telecom giant said it would only increase the speed if the fire department switched to a new data plan that was double the cost, Bowden said. 

Bowden's account is part of a lawsuit filed by 22 states that are seeking to overturn the government's decision to revoke net neutrality, or the policy that all internet service providers like Verizon and Comcast treat all content equally. The lawsuit argues the Federal Communications Commission failed to analyze how the end of net neutrality would impact public safety, such as in the case of the Santa Clara fire department. 

Internet providers "have shown every indication that they will prioritize their economic interests, even in situations that implicate public safety," the lawsuit alleges, according to a filing posted by Ars Technica.

In a statement to CBS News, Verizon said the throttling had "nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court."

Instead, the telecom company blamed "a mistake in how we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan." It added that it has a policy of removing data speed restrictions in emergency situations. 

"In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us. This was a customer support mistake. We are reviewing the situation and will fix any issues going forward," it said.

Bowden said in the legal filing that Verizon eventually lifted the throttling -- but "only after County Fire subscribed to a new, more expensive plan."

He added, "In light of our experience, County Fire believes it is likely that Verizon will continue to use the exigent nature of public safety emergencies and catastrophic events to coerce public agencies into higher cost plans ultimately paying significantly more for mission critical service -- even if that means risking harm to public safety during negotiations."

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