Verizon Throttled The 'Unlimited' Data Plan Of A Fire Dept. Battling Wildfires
from the herp-derp dept
We’ve long discussed how Verizon (like most U.S. cellular carriers) has a terribly-difficult time understanding what the word “unlimited” means. Way back in 2007 Verizon was forced to settle with the New York Attorney General after a nine-month investigation found the company was throttling its “unlimited” mobile data plans after just 5GB of data usage, without those limits being clearly explained to the end user. Of course Verizon tried for a while to eliminate unlimited data plans completely, but a little something called competition finally forced the company to bring the idea back from the dead a few years ago.
But the company’s new “unlimited” data plans still suffer from all manner of fine print, limits, and caveats. That includes throttling all video by default (something you can avoid if you’re willing to pay significantly more), restrictions on tethering and usage of your phone as a hotspot or modem, and a 25 GB cap that results in said “unlimited” plans suddenly being throttled back to last-generation speeds as slow as 128 kbps. In short, Verizon still pretty clearly has no damn idea what the word unlimited actually means, nor does it much care if this entire mess confuses you.
The latest case in point: one fire department in Santa Clara County, California had subscribed to what it thought was an unlimited Verizon wireless data plan for its mobile command and control center (OES 5262) vehicle. The vehicle is used to manage department resources during wildfires and other emergencies. But a brief (pdf) filed this week by net neutrality supporters pushing for restoration of net neutrality rules (first spotted by Ars Technica) highlights how the fire department suddenly found the vehicle (and all connected systems) largely unusable because Verizon had throttled its cellular data connection after 25 GB of usage:
“Santa Clara Fire paid Verizon for “unlimited” data but suffered from heavy throttling until the department paid Verizon more, according to Bowden’s declaration and emails between the fire department and Verizon that were submitted as evidence.
“In the midst of our response to the Mendocino Complex Fire, County Fire discovered the data connection for OES 5262 was being throttled by Verizon, and data rates had been reduced to 1/200, or less, than the previous speeds,” Bowden wrote. “These reduced speeds severely interfered with the OES 5262’s ability to function effectively. My Information Technology staff communicated directly with Verizon via email about the throttling, requesting it be immediately lifted for public safety purposes.”
This being the telecom industry, Verizon’s support response to the problem wasn’t what you’d call top shelf. Instead of quickly understanding the dire nature of the complaint and restoring the connection to full speeds, the fire department says Verizon informed them that the fire department needed to upgrade to a new data plan at more than twice the cost. At one point, a Verizon account rep advised that the fire department should pony up for Verizon’s per gigabyte rate (which has varied at prices ranging up to a whopping $15 per gigabyte).
If you’re playing along at home, this is nothing new. Cellular carriers often impose all manner of confusing limits and caveats as part of an intentional effort to upsell you to more expensive tiers of service you may not actually need. Historically, the FCC’s now-discarded net neutrality rules allowed for this kind of throttling in cases of congestion and “reasonable network management” (though this term has long been abused). But the fire department says its connection was being throttled at all times, not just during periods of congestion.
And, lo and behold, the department technically couldn’t formally complain to the FCC because Verizon had, as we’re all well aware, just got done spending millions of dollars and countless lobbying hours to dismantle net neutrality protections, notes Ars:
“Santa Clara could have complained to the FCC under the now-removed net neutrality system, which allowed Internet users to file complaints about any unjust or unreasonable prices and practices. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai’s decision to deregulate the broadband industry eliminated that complaint option and also limited consumers’ rights to sue Internet providers over unjust or unreasonable behavior.”
Lovely. Verizon subsequently admitted that the company shouldn’t have throttled first responders anyway, as that was a violation of the company’s own policies. But this being the telecom industry, customer service gaffes are a feature, not a bug.
Granted, this is the same company that has fought for more than a decade to crush net neutrality while not only actively denying that’s what it was doing, but insisting that net neutrality needed to be dismantled to help protect public safety. As such, there’s nothing about this story that’s remotely surprising. Verizon has worked tirelessly to ensure it doesn’t have to be particularly transparent, whether we’re talking about net neutrality or privacy, and the end result has been on proud display for decades.