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Verizon Fights a Fire of Its Own Making

As widely reported earlier this week, Verizon has found itself in the midst of a major uproar as Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden railed against the wireless carrier for throttling the data services for firefighters battling the Mendocino Complex wild fires. The chief is claiming that Verizon throttled data service for a key command vehicle to one/two-hundredth of its normal rate. People on the fire line were forced to use their personal devices and take other steps to communicate.

When the county contacted Verizon regarding the problem, a Verizon representative reportedly offered a more expensive service plan as an alternative. I hope his house wasn't on fire.

In a statement issued Tuesday, Aug. 21, Verizon acknowledged it erred in maintaining the restriction on the unit's data service after the department requested it be lifted. In its statement Verizon said:

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.

Maybe it should quit getting customer service advice from Wells Fargo.

Net Neutrality?

In a meaningless detour from the original story, Bowden did manage to drag Net neutrality into the conversation. Apparently the chief has filed an addendum to a brief filed by 22 attorneys general calling for a return to the Obama Era Net neutrality rules.

However, Net neutrality has nothing to do with unlimited rate plans that include a bandwidth-throttling provision once a customer reaches a specified level of usage within a billing period. Such plans existed before and after the Federal Communications Commission changed the Net neutrality rules.

Frankly, what any of this has to do with Net neutrality completely escapes me. Independent of any policy discussion on Net neutrality, the wireless industry has begun delivering services specifically designed for first responders, in particular FirstNet (operated by AT&T Wireless) and the unnamed Nationwide Public Safety Broadband Network (NPSBN) from Verizon Wireless (read related No Jitter article). In those services, public safety users are given higher priority than everyone else, not arbitrary throttling.

The fire district apparently wasn't on one of those services, but rather a standard commercial plan as would be available to anyone. Such a plan would not routinely prioritize public safety traffic as would FirstNet or the Verizon alternative. Verizon claims that its handling of the fire district incident was a "customer support mistake." Verizon does prioritize "understatement."

Real Lessons for Enterprise Customers

Emergency communications are a critical requirement for government public safety officials, and increasingly, for a wider range of agencies. Networks such as FirstNet are designed primarily for first responders like police, fire, and ambulance services, but they are also available to the wider community involved in responding to emergencies. That community includes hospitals, public utilities, transportation, and even IT providers.

If you work for an organization that could be called upon in the event of an emergency or disaster, you are in effect a part of the extended public safety community. As such, you're likely eligible to subscribe to some of these services. Further, you should maintain a good working relationship with your service providers, particularly the people in those companies that can get important stuff done in a timely fashion.

Our business is built on service, and we should take great pride in doing our part to support those who do so much for the rest of us. If Verizon intends to be a supplier in the public safety area, let's hope it takes that lesson to heart.

Follow Michael Finneran on Twitter.

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