Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...

Verizon refused to un-throttle a California fire department’s ‘unlimited’ plan during wildfires

Published Aug 21st, 2018 8:31PM EDT
Verizon unlimited throttling, fire department emails
Image: Shutterstock/QualityHD

If you buy through a BGR link, we may earn an affiliate commission, helping support our expert product labs.

Although calling out wireless carriers is a frequent pasttime here at BGR, sometimes a story comes along that sounds so cartoonishly villanous that you assume something in the story is wrong. But in this case, there are emails, and what they reveal is that Verizon’s big talk about supporting emergency services apparently doesn’t work in the real world.

Ars Technica‘s Jon Brodkin found a series of emails between the Santa Clara County Fire Department and Verizon discussing the fire department’s supposedly unlimited plan, how it was being throttled while on scene trying to battle a wildfire, and what could be done about it.

Firefighers use the internet to coordinate the response during fires, and the SCCFD was having problems with the Verizon service on one vehicle, OES 5262. The fire department thought that they had a completely unlimited plan with no throttling, so when the speeds were slowed all the way down, they reached out to Verizon to see what was up. From the fire captain to Verizon:

The device we’re having an issue with is a Cradlepoint AER 2100. It is deployed on the Pawnee fire as part of an OES support unit that is providing essential operational coverage for mutual aid resources deployed on that fire. The challenge of this device is that it is normally off, and consumes little to no data on a monthly basis. When the unit gets deployed it used a decent amount of data for a few days to a few weeks. On the order of 5-1 Ogb a day. The crew was getting around 50/1 Om bps and is current getting 30/130kbps.

The response they got was…to upgrade the plan:

Hi Justin,

To get the data speeds restored on this device, will you please reply that you approve moving the plan on line 408-438-4844 from the $37.99 (84356) plan to the $39.99 (84357) plan?

The response from one of the fire department’s senior officers has some elements that feel oddly familiar from personal experiences with telecoms customer support — I thought we’d resolved this before:

Our understanding from Eric Prosser, our former Information Technology Officer, was that he had received approval from Verizon that public safety should never be gated down because of our critical infrastructure need for these devices. Justin articulates that quite well below in his forwarded email.

The unit we are discussing is basically a fire engine (minus the water, hoses and ladders) but with tools and equipment that is used to support incident operations at major emergencies and/or disasters. It is currently assisting the Incident Command Team at the Pawnee Fire in Lake County, to ensure that all of the apparatus and personnel can effectively mitigate that major wildfire.

So at this point, Verizon has had it spelled out to them that this is critical emergency response equipment involved in saving people’s lives, the customer support people work out that they should probably stop wasting the time of firefighters during some of the worst fires in state history, and fixed the problem, right? Nope:

In short, Verizon has always reserved the right to limit data throughput on unlimited plans. All unlimited data plans offered by Verizon have some sort of data throttling built-in, including the $39.99 plan. Verizon does offer plans with no data throughput limitations; these plans require that the customer pay by the GB for use beyond a certain set allotment. Attached is the list of public sector plans, see pgs. 10-18 for data plans. Also attached is the State of CA plans which offers the $37.99 unlimited data plan (pg. 1 ). We can talk about these plans to find the solution that best fits the needs of your department.

In other words: Unlimited isn’t unlimited, and it’s all in our terms and conditions, so really, not our fault! It’s also worth mentioning that nowhere here does anyone at Verizon propose fixing the problem temporarily while all this haggling is going on which, as you’d expect, annoys the fire captain on the ground, who chimes back into the email thread:

I just wanted to provide an update to those who were involved in this originally. OES 5262 is deployed again, now to the Mendocino Complex (CA-MEU-008674), and is still experiencing the same throttling. As I understood it from our previous exchange regarding this device, the billing cycle was set to end 7/23, which should have alleviated the throttling. In a side by side comparison, a crew members personal phone using verizon was seeing speeds of 20Mbps/7Mbps. The department verizon device is experiencing speeds of 0.2Mbps/0.6Mbps, meaning it has no meaningful functionality.

After two more pleading emails from the fire department IT department — one of which just says “Please work with us. All we need is a plan that does not offer throttling or caps of any kind.” — Verizon replies with an option for a $99 plan that has 20GB of built-in data, with an $8 per GB charge after that. Ultimately, a full month after the issue was initially raised, that’s what the department ended up doing.

In a statement to BGR, Verizon defended its plans, but said that not lifting the throttling restriction (for a month!) was just a mistake:

We made a mistake in how we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan. Like all customers, fire departments choose service plans that are best for them. This customer purchased a government contract plan for a high-speed wireless data allotment at a set monthly cost. Under this plan, users get an unlimited amount of data but speeds are reduced when they exceed their allotment until the next billing cycle. Regardless of the plan emergency responders choose, we have a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations. We have done that many times, including for emergency personnel responding to these tragic fires. 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.

One of the big problems in all this is that Verizon makes a big public deal about its support for emergency services, but this isn’t the first time that it’s been caught out for saying one thing and doing another. In February, the company ran an advert about first responders during the Super Bowl, but the very first town featured in the ad is a total Verizon black spot. The ad appears to have since been pulled from YouTube.

What’s worse is that this entire situation would never have come to light were it not for a brief filed by 22 state attorneys general as part of a lawsuit, which seeks to overturn the repeal of net neutrality rules by the FCC.

But hey, at least those firefighters have six months of free Apple Music, even if they don’t get unlimited data.

Chris Mills
Chris Mills News Editor

Chris Mills has been a news editor and writer for over 15 years, starting at Future Publishing, Gawker Media, and then BGR. He studied at McGill University in Quebec, Canada.

More Tech