Net Neutrality’s Repeal Endangers California’s Fire Fighting Efforts

On December 14 of last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted three to two along party lines to repeal regulations protecting the free and open internet, known as net neutrality.

This means Internet Service Providers (ISP) are now legally permitted to discriminate against web content.

Comcast, for instance, can charge Netflix customers extra for requiring more bandwidth; AT&T can decide to block access to certain websites; people’s political affiliations can be used as a pretext to slow down their connection speeds or to block content they access altogether; Verizon could decide to throttle content that may be critical of it or its subsidiaries.

There is another, perhaps unintended but nonetheless dangerous, consequence to the net neutrality rollback–its hindrance to critical infrastructures, like emergency services.

The FCC’s measure was responsible for placing California firefighters in jeopardy this week when a command and control communications vehicle, OES 5262, used to “track, organize and prioritize routing of resources around the state and country to the sites where they are needed the most” had its communications capabilities throttled to about 1/200th of the typical speed despite the unlimited data plan the Santa Clara County Fire Department paid Verizon to provide.

In a declaration Santa Clara County Fire Chief, Anthony Bowden, stated :

“County Fire has experienced throttling by its ISP, Verizon. This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services. Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services.”

That statement was submitted in an addendum to a brief 22 state attorneys general, the District of Columbia, Santa Clara County, Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District, and the California Public Utilities Commission filed against the FCC in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit.

Chief Bowden added:

“The Internet has become an essential tool in providing fire and emergency response, particularly for events like large fires which require the rapid deployment and organization of thousands of personnel and hundreds of fire engines, aircraft, and bulldozers. This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services.Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services.” 

As a result of their impeded communications:

“County Fire personnel were forced to use other agencies’ Internet Service Providers and their own personal devices to provide the necessary connectivity and data transfer capability required by OES 5262.”

Under Obama-era protections, the fire department would have had legal recourse to present a complaint to the FCC, which could have acted against Verizon.

This isn’t the first time Verizon did this.

The fire department contacted the ISP in June when battling the Pawnee fire, and in December 2017 when fighting a grass fire near Prado regional park.

According to emails included in court filings, in June 2018 fire captain Justin Stockman contacted Verizon requesting the data connection for a critical communications component be increased. A Verizon account manager responded by trying to sell an upgrade from a $37.99 plan to a $39.99 plan.

Chief Bowden stated:

“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.”

Some might argue that, as inconvenient and inappropriate as this current situation is, ISPs are legally allowed to abate users’ data if users exceed that for which they have signed up.

Verizon has a policy, though, to remove restrictions if contacted in emergency situations.

The company defended itself in a statement published Tuesday:

“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.”

Harold Feld of Public Knowledge, one of the organizations filing suit, commented:

“Companies need to be liable for their actions. Verizon’s response of ‘I’m terribly sorry your state is burning down, let me sell you this new package’ is not good enough. We need rules to prevent it from happening in the first place.”

Immediately after net neutrality’s repeal, 29 senators rallied behind a movement to reverse the FCC’s decision through the Congressional Review Act (CRA), which provides Congress the power to review new regulations and overrule any it doesn’t approve, within 60 congressional days.

That resolution passed in May 52–47.

More than 175 House representatives have expressed their support, but a total of 218 signatures on a discharge petition are needed to force the CRA resolution to the floor. Unlike a typical bill, a CRA “Resolution of Disapproval” requires only a simple majority in the Senate and House, avoiding a potential filibuster.

This is when we contact our House member representing us–especially if they are Republicans–and demand they sign the discharge petition.

Fight for the Future has launched a website that provides tools and sample scripts for Americans to easily contact their representatives.

Image credit: 95.3 MNC

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