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Verizon's Throttling of County Fire Department Illustrates Dangers of Net Neutrality Repeal

Verizon's Throttling of County Fire Department Illustrates Dangers of Net Neutrality Repeal
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By Wes O’Donnell
Managing Editor, InCyberDefense

News broke last week that Verizon had slowed (throttled) California firefighters’ Internet data speeds during a wildfire crisis. Understandably, the public was outraged that the telecommunications giant put profit ahead of public safety.

Frantic emails between the Santa Clara, California, fire department and Verizon customer support have surfaced in the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The emails read as if they could have been any one of us having a conversation about data with an Internet Service Provider (ISP). The difference? In this case, lives were at risk.

“Please work with us,” Daniel Farrelly, a systems analyst for the Santa Clara Fire Department, entreated the company in an email dated July 30. “All we need is a plan that does not offer throttling or caps of any kind.” Several hours later, a Verizon representative suggested that they pay for an upgrade.

The Santa Clara Fire Department would eventually have their data speeds restored, but only after they upgraded to a more expensive plan.

According to NPR, Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden included the emails in his declaration supporting a petition challenging the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to repeal Obama-era regulations known as net neutrality. Those regulations barred ISPs from blocking or slowing Internet access or from speeding it up for a higher charge.

But is the repeal of net neutrality responsible for the throttling? Or was this simply a customer service disaster perpetuated by an ISP that needs to spend more resources on training their account managers?

ISPs Working on Ways to Manage Cellular Data Traffic

Since consumers have begun using cell data to access the Internet, especially in locations without Wi-Fi, ISPs have been trying to figure out how to support exponential increases in traffic with incremental increase in bandwidth. The year 2003 saw the first commercial deployment of 3G, or third generation, wireless communication.

When Apple’s first iPhone hit the market in June of 2007, many ISPs realized immediately the financial benefits of facilitating Internet access over cellular networks. This access would come at a price to users.

In fact, during the height of net neutrality, providers still put limits on how much data a consumer could access through a cellular network. To Verizon’s credit, the company was throttling “unlimited” customers well before the net neutrality repeal. This action seems to discredit Fire Chief Bowden’s claims that Verizon’s recent customer service crisis was about net neutrality.

Net Neutrality Loophole Allows ISPs to Use Throttling and Potentially Put Public Safety at Risk in Future

The old net neutrality rules stated that ISPs could be punished for “throttling.” However, the rules contained a loophole that allowed the ISPs to claim “reasonable network management,” a loophole which most ISPs used often.

There are real implications moving forward for ISPs to leverage net neutrality’s repeal to further put profits ahead of consumers’ public safety.

According to Santa Clara County’s recent statement, first reported by Ars Technica, “Verizon’s throttling has everything to do with net neutrality — it shows that the ISPs will act in their economic interests, even at the expense of public safety.”

Capitalism and the free market are great until they endanger human lives. There is a reason for regulation; it is possible to regulate an industry and still be extremely profitable.

If net neutrality is truly dead, several things must happen to prevent abuse by ISPs:

  • First, the Federal Trade Commission needs to provide stronger guidelines and punishments and a legitimate avenue for consumer complaints when an ISP inadvertently or willfully threatens human lives for profit.
  • Second, the ISPs themselves must create new policies and programs to allow unlimited data at high speeds to emergency responders and during a crisis or national emergency. Without such a policy in place, customer service representatives and their immediate supervisors will have to handle similar situations on a case-by-case basis. This would be acceptable if there were uniformity in how ISPs trained their account managers. Currently, there is none.
  • Ultimately, extra training, legal counsel and the creation of new policies cost ISPs money. However, it is wishful thinking to expect that ISPs will spend precious capital creating new resources until a public relations crisis forces them to do so.

For its part, Verizon has acknowledged that it made a mistake. The company now has a policy in place to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in an emergency situation.

As for Chief Bowden, his skepticism that ISPs will do the right thing is evident in his brief. He wrote, “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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