Tag Archives: California wildfires

File Under “We Told You So”

The Guardian,among other publications, recently reported that Verizon “throttled” the presumably unlimited data of California firefighters while they were battling the blazes that were–and still are–engulfing communities in that state.

California firefighters’ ability to battle a huge wildfire was impeded by Verizon Wireless throttling their internet connection, in a moment advocates say demonstrates the high stakes of the battle over net neutrality.

Santa Clara county fire department had paid for what Verizon described as an “unlimited” data plan for various internet-connected devices, but the data flow was throttled to about 1/200th of the typical speed – unusably slow for any meaningful data transfer.

This restriction created problems for a command and control communications vehicle called OES 5262 as firefighters battled the Mendocino Complex fire, the largest wildfire in California’s history, in late July. The vehicle – essentially a fire engine that is fitted with computers and communications equipment – gets internet access via a device that uses a Verizon sim card. It is used as a hub to “track, organize and prioritize routing of resources around the state and country to the sites where they are needed the most”, according to the Santa Clara county fire chief, Anthony Bowden, in a lawsuit over net neutrality protections, first reported by Ars Technica.

Net Neutrality rules put in place under the Obama Administration would have protected the firefighters (or at least provided them with recourse), but those rules were repealed by Ajit Pai, Trump’s appointee to the FCC.  Pai was a former executive at Verizon, and Verizon has been one of the “big telecom” companies lobbying for the repeal.  Pai argued that the net neutrality rules would stifle innovation, and that they had been established on “hypothetical harms and hysterical prophecies of doom”.

With Pai at the helm, the FCC simply ignored massive numbers of emails arguing against repeal, and ignored as well a number of surveys that found more than 80% of Americans supporting Net Neutrality.

The July incident wasn’t the first time Verizon had throttled the firefighters’ data connection.

They had previously contacted Verizon in June when they were dealing with the Pawnee fire and December 2017 when they were battling a grass fire near Prado regional park.

According to emails included in court filings, in June 2018, the fire captain Justin Stockman contacted Verizon requesting that the data connection for a critical piece of communications equipment was unthrottled. A Verizon account manager responded by trying to upsell the fire department from a $37.99 plan to a $39.99 plan.

The Santa Clara fire department is part of a larger lawsuit against the Federal Communications Commission; the lawsuit seeks to overturn the repeal of net neutrality rules that prevent internet service providers from blocking, throttling and prioritizing customers on the basis of pay. The suit represents plaintiffs in twelve separate lawsuits that were consolidated into a single suit. Those lawsuits were filed by more than three dozen entities, including state attorneys general, consumer advocacy groups, and tech companies.

Probably the best explanation of Net Neutrality–and the consequences of its repeal–can be found by watching comedian John Oliver who has devoted two of his shows to the topic.

I guess it takes a comedian to explain why the loss of Net Neutrality is no laughing matter.