Anthony Bowden, fire chief of the Santa Clara County Fire Department, told California lawmakers today that the throttling recently experienced by firefighters battling the Medocino Complex fire was “unacceptable” and that first responders’ access to a public safety network was critical. Verizon was accused earlier this week of slowing down service to California firefighters as they battled some of the worst fires in the state’s history.
“Responders rely on mobile wireless connectivity. The public relies on our ability to provide them information,” Mr. Bowden said today during a hearing on the issue held by the Senate Select Committee on Natural Disaster, Response, Recovery, and Rebuilding. “Our ability to connect and maintain Internet connectivity is critical to our public safety mission.”
He continued, “For me, personally … I’d rather keep my head down and keep working than to have to speak publicly about something like this. But I have to make sure this doesn’t happen again to any other fire service provider or agency.”
Verizon, meanwhile, announced today ahead of the California hearing that it would lift data restrictions and speed cap restrictions for first responders on the west coast and in Hawaii to support firefighting and hurricane efforts. Verizon said it would also lift restrictions on public safety customers, providing full network access, during future disasters, and next will release new unlimited data plans for public safety agencies across the country.
Rudy Reyes, vice president and associate general counsel of the Western Region at Verizon, acknowledged the company’s mistakes today and pointed to Verizon’s quick action to resolve the problem going forward. “We all make mistakes from time to time. But the true measure of leadership is how quickly we own the situation, take responsibility for what happened, and address the mistake,” he told California lawmakers today.
The issue came to light earlier this week when Mr. Bowden disclosed the throttling experienced by firefighters battling the Mendocino Complex fire in an addendum to a brief filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit by attorneys general and government agencies seeking to overturn the FCC’s 2017 repeal of net neutrality rules.
The throttling, Mr. Bowden wrote in the brief, “had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services. Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding county fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services.”
David Hickey, VP-business and government sales at Verizon, described what happened as a “process operational error” and said it had nothing to do with net neutrality. “This issue is not about net neutrality,” Mr. Hickey said. “It is apples and oranges. Net neutrality addresses content discrimination where an ISP would speed access to some websites and slow access to other websites. But we have made it clear that we do not do that.”
Mr. Hickey continued, “This is a situation where an operational error occurred and speed caps were not lifted as they should have been. But this had nothing to do with net neutrality.”
Assembly member Marc Levine (D., District 10), co-chair of the committee, said he was “grateful that Verizon recognizes that they need to change how they do their business,” because reliable networks are essential to first responders.
“Even though we are right to be indignant, and we are right to be outraged,” he said. “We are here today to search for answers. We want to know that the women and the men who put their lives on the line for us have the tools they need to protect us. Firefighting and emergency response are dependent on communication,” Assembly member Levine said.
Mr. Bowden, meanwhile, told the committee that throttling on the Verizon network was first experienced in December 2017. The agency was able to contact a Verizon accounts manager and resolve the problem in about 20 minutes, he said. When the same issue occurred again in June, the Santa Clara Fire Department agreed to sign on for a higher rate plan.
“The thing about public safety … is that it is very difficult to predict when events are going to happen,” Mr. Bowden said. “And we don’t have unlimited funds so we have to make sure our plan meets our needs but isn’t so expensive that it comes at the expense of our staffing. So we have to find a balance.”
Last month, at the Mendocino Complex fire in Northern California, fire officials again experienced throttling and weren’t able to contact a Verizon account manager to solve the problem. The fire company’s tech support utilized personal hot spots and other “work-arounds,” Mr. Bowden explained, adding that another company provided a redundant device that was still being used at the Mendocino Complex.
In response to the incident, Mr. Reyes read a statement to the committee from Mike Maiorana, Verizon’s senior VP-public sector, apologizing for the incident and laying out Verizon’s plan going forward.
“In supporting first responders in the Mendocino fire, we didn’t live up to our own promise of service and performance excellence when our process failed some first responders on the line battling a massive California wildfire,” Mr. Maiorana said in the statement. “For that, we are truly sorry. And we’re making every effort to ensure that it never happens again.”
“As of yesterday, we removed all speed cap restrictions for first responders on the west coast and in Hawaii to support current firefighting and Hurricane Lane efforts. Further, in the event of another disaster, Verizon will lift restrictions on public safety customers, providing full network access.”
In addition, Verizon said it was introducing “a new plan that will feature unlimited data with no caps on mobile solutions and automatically includes priority access. We’ll provide full details when we introduce the plan next week, and we will make it easy to upgrade service at no additional cost.”
Mr. Bowden said he had not reviewed Verizon’s plan and couldn’t comment. He did, however, call for hardening and improvements to redundancy.
“With the large amount of fires we’ve had, we have an opportunity now to rebuild and protect the cell sites. There’s a lot of infrastructure hardening that we can be doing. And it’s not just for public safety, but for consumers who need access to communications during emergencies,” he said.
Assembly member Levine added, “We don’t know how many other times this has occurred. We need to make sure that we here in the Legislature know about this and [make certain] that it never happens again. From the provider’s perspective, I hope they feel the same way.”
“It’s unfortunate that it took an event like this to bring us together, but the benefit is going to be for everyone,” Mr. Hickey said. -Carrie DeLeon, firstname.lastname@example.org