Calif. Hearing Set to Address Verizon's Data Throttling During Wildfires
Aug. 23—A California State Assembly committee is meeting Friday morning to gather information and hear testimony on why Verizon slowed down data speeds for Santa Clara County firefighters who were helping to battle the Mendocino Complex fires.
The Select Committee on Natural Disaster, Response, Recovery and Rebuilding will be convening in the California State Capitol building to hold the informational hearing on the matter and invited Santa Clara County Fire Department staff, the department's Chief Anthony Bowden and representatives from Verizon and other telecommunications companies to speak.
The hearing, which starts at 9 a.m., will be available to the public to watch via live-stream.
"We need to know exactly what happened during the Mendocino Complex Fire," Assemblymember Marc Levine, D-Marin, told this news organization. Levine co-chairs the select committee. "We need to know why they were throttled, why it continued and why it was not resolved. The Mendocino Complex Fire was not a fire drill. This was unforgivable."
Santa Clara County firefighters deployed to the two Mendocino Complex fires experienced internet speeds slashed to 1/200 that of previous speeds by Verizon. Despite multiple requests to Verizon to turn off the throttling—the slowing down of data speeds—in order to communicate with other firefighters, Verizon did not do so and even suggested the department should pay more for a better data plan during the fire, according to Bowden.
Bowden wrote to the U.S. District Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, saying the throttling "had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services" for firefighters.
Levine co-chairs the select committee with Assemblymember Monique Limon, D-Santa Barbara.
Levine recalled how the Tubbs fire last year had been devastating for thousands of his constituents in Santa Rosa and said that motivated him to convene the hearing about the Verizon throttling incident.
"We should not have challenges for first responders who may be impeded from doing their jobs," said Levine. "Telecommunications companies should know who our first responders are."
Legislators may consider whether to propose new laws to prevent companies like Verizon from throttling first responders, but that won't be determined until after the hearing, according to Levine. The committee will also explore whether the state of California could have intervened when the firefighters were being throttled.
Levine, however, may shy away from exploring one facet of the issue: net neutrality, a hot-button regulatory issue that focuses on preventing broadband providers from manipulating data.
Net neutrality rules implemented under the Obama administration sought to prevent internet service providers and broadband carriers such as Verizon from favoring one website or service over others by granting unequal loading speeds, or by blocking or slowing content. The Trump administration repealed the regulations in 2017.
Bowden submitted his testimony about the Verizon throttling of his firefighters' devices as part of a brief to support the return of past net neutrality regulations.
"That is a separate problem," said Levine. "From what I've read, the issue stems from the fact that (firefighters) went over their limit ... It's a little different than net neutrality."