Verizon Throttles Firefighters: Any Lessons for Enterprises?

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Verizon landed itself in some trouble last month when it throttled data service for firefighters battling the Mendocino Complex wild fires, causing communication issues that forced firefighters to use their personal devices, as detailed in other No Jitter coverage. While this particular scenario affected first responders, there are lessons learned that can be valuable for businesses.

By way of background, the Mendocino Complex Fire has become the largest wildfire in California recorded history. Starting on July 27, 2018, the Mendocino Complex Fire consisted of two adjacent fires: the Ranch Fire and the River Fire. After these fires burned through 460,000 acres, as of this writing, the River Fire is now 100% contained and the Ranch Fire is 98% contained.

The Santa Clara County Fire Protection District was one group of firefighters fighting the blaze. This group was using a Verizon Unlimited Data plan for their wireless devices. Unfortunately, they were also near the end of the month and had exceeded their data plan limits. Verizon "throttled" down the usage to about 5% of the normal speed to 600 kbps, hampering the coordination of machinery and staff.

On July 29, the fire department wrote to Verizon complaining about the throttling. Verizon's response was that they should upgrade their plan for a $37.99 Unlimited plan to a $99.99 plan (20 GB + $8 per gigabyte after 20 GB). According to Santa Clara County fire chief Anthony Bowden, Verizon representatives said they would only remove throttling after the fire department contacted the billing department to switch to the new plan.

Once the story got out about Verizon's data plan throttling, the California State Assembly (Select Committee on Natural Disaster, Response, Recovery and Rebuilding) convened a meeting on August 24. At the meeting, Verizon executives apologized, stated this was a customer service error and issued a new policy.

"As of yesterday, we removed all speed cap restrictions for first responders on the west coast and in Hawaii to support current firefighting and Hurricane Lane efforts," said Mike Maiorana, SVP of public sector at Verizon, in a prepared statement. "Further, in the event of another disaster, Verizon will lift restrictions on public safety customers, providing full network access."

Further, Maiorana said, Verizon would be introducing a new plan -- with truly unlimited data, no caps on mobile solutions, and including priority access -- for first responders across the country.

While this may address the immediate issue with first responders, what should the average company take away from this situation?

  • Within your organization, who are the "first responders"?
  • Are you using a data plan that throttles speed when you reach a certain limit?
  • If data speeds were throttled, how would this affect your "first responders" in an emergency?
  • Have you scripted out your emergency plans? What happens if something doesn't work?

These are just some things to think about. What happens if there is no wireless service? The inability to access/use wireless can occur under two scenarios. First, the wireless/cell towers may be inoperable. This could happen in the event of a fire or earthquake that damages or destroys. In a second scenario, wireless service could be available but you are unable to obtain that service. An example of such a scenario might be a shooting incident, during which everyone will take out their wireless devices and start to call, text, or stream, overloading the networks.

Wireless network vendors do not spend more than they need to, and thus only engineer their networks to handle "reasonable traffic" at peak time. Their networks are not designed to handle everyone using their devices at the same time.

What happens to your enterprise's emergency plan if you're not able to access wireless service?

An alternative to consider is a satellite phone. For the cost of an iPhone X, you could purchase an Iridium Satellite phone ($995). Yearly satellite plans start at $50 per month. So, for the cost of an additional smartphone, you could instead have the peace of mind of having a backup means of communicating. And while it is very unlikely you would need a satellite phone, think of it as inexpensive insurance.

The Santa Clara Fire department data throttling incident was unfortunate, but lessons were learned and policies changed as a result. What other lessons can your business learn from this incident?

"SCTC Perspectives" is written by members of the Society of Communications Technology Consultants, an international organization of independent information and communications technology professionals serving clients in all business sectors and government worldwide.

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