Verizon Communications, Inc., today announced that, as of yesterday, public safety mobile broadband customers in Hawaii and on the West Coast are no longer subject to its policy of reducing data transmission speeds for the remainder of the billing period for subscribers on “unlimited” data plans if their usage exceeds pre-set levels. It also said it plans to roll out an offering for public safety customers with “no caps on mobile usage.”
The announcement came in the wake of a statement about the effects of the Verizon policy by the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District in a court filing related to the FCC’s elimination of a rule against “throttling,” as deliberate data speed reductions by Internet service providers (ISPs) are known. News of that incident prompted a California state legislature hearing today to look into the issue (see separate story) and a letter to the Federal Trade Commission from members of California’s congressional delegation urging an investigation of Verizon’s business practices.
In an addendum to a brief filed earlier this week by government petitioners seeking to overturn the FCC’s December 2017 restoring Internet freedom (RIF) order, Anthony Bowden, the fire chief for the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District, had said that the department experienced throttling by Verizon that “had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services” during deployment to battle the Mendocino Complex Fire (TR Daily, Aug. 21). He added, “Verizon representatives confirmed the throttling, but, rather than restoring us to an essential data transfer speed, they indicated that County Fire would have to switch to a new data plan at more than twice the cost, and they would only remove throttling after we contacted the Department that handles billing and switched to the new data plan.”
Verizon said earlier this week that its practice is to “remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations” by emergency responders, and that its failure to do in this case was “a customer support mistake” that it was reviewing (TR Daily, Aug. 21).
In today’s announcement, Mike Maiorana, Verizon’s senior vice president–public sector, said, “First responders put themselves on the line each and every day. And every day, we are eternally grateful for their bravery and efforts. 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. 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.”
Mr. Maiorana added, “We’ve been working closely with mission critical first responders to refine our service plan to better meet their unique needs. As a result, we’re 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.”
A spokesperson for AT&T, Inc., the carrier partner of the First Responder Network Authority (FirstNet), said that the Santa Clara situation “reinforces the need for FirstNet, which does not throttle subscribers anywhere in the country. Instead, FirstNet gives public safety the capabilities they need with the affordability they require — that’s what it means to be public safety’s network platform partner.
“FirstNet is designed with and for first responders to meet their needs in ways that other providers clearly aren’t. This is a great example of why public safety deserves a nationwide dedicated network platform that intimately understands their needs — which FirstNet today meets,” the AT&T spokesperson added.
Verizon is marketing a public safety broadband offering that compete with AT&T’s FirstNet service.
Meanwhile, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.), high-ranking House Energy and Commerce Committee member Anna G. Eshoo (D., Calif.), and 11 other Democratic House members from Northern California wrote to the FTC calling for an investigation into whether Verizon’s throttling of a customer on an unlimited data plan constitutes an “unfair or deceptive” business practice under section 5 of the FTC Act.
The lawmakers said that they believe that the FCC, as the expert agency in this area, “should be responsible for the oversight of public safety networks and communications networks as a whole. 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,” the lawmakers said. “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,” they added.
Joining Reps. Pelosi and Eshoo on the letter were Reps. Mark DeSaulnier, John Garamendi, Jared Huffman, Ro Khanna, Barbara Lee, Zoe Lofgren, Doris Matsui, Jerry McNerney, Jimmy Panetta, Jackie Speier, and Mike Thompson, all Democrats from California. —Lynn Stanton, firstname.lastname@example.org