Mobile service providers throttling internet connections, especially on supposedly unlimited plans, is not new. But what is rather disconcerting is a recent story of Verizon arbitrarily throttling the connection speed of 4G-enabled trucks during a series of wildfires near Santa Clara, California.
The data connection fed to these trucks carries vital information about where to head next, priority levels of emergencies, and more. Without this data, Fire Chief Anthony Bowden says, lives are on the line as firefighters are forced to work far less efficiently in a time of crisis. Their connection speed at one point was cut back to 1/200 of its regular rate, making it impossible to transmit the data necessary for these trucks to coordinate.
“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,” Bowden wrote.
So as you can imagine, personnel from the fire station promptly contacted Verizon for a solution. But get this:
“Verizon representatives confirmed the throttling, but rather than restoring us to an essential data transfer speed, they indicated that County Fire would have to switch to a new data plan at more than twice the cost, and they would only remove throttling after we contacted the Department that handles billing and switched to the new data plan,” Bowden wrote. (arstechnica.com)
It doesn’t even seem like much of an exaggeration to say the provider was holding crucial data access hostage. Even when the fire department explained the data was needed for life-saving purposes in the middle of a crisis, and that legally emergency services are entitled to unlimited data at lower price tiers than regular customers for this reason, Verizon responded only to acknowledge that fact and state that throttling during that crisis “was a mistake that is being investigated.”
It sounds like a usual corporate PR canned answer, but it misses the finer point that this “mistake” was not simply an inconvenience to a paying customer. Lives were literally on the line. From the sounds of it from news sources discussing this story, fortunately no lives were lost as a consequence of this, and firefighters were able to find alternatives to contain the wildfires in a pinch.
But a “billing mistake” that could’ve cost lives? That’s not hyperbole designed to get a rise out of anyone; but rather what seems like a simple assessment of the situation that the tech giant doesn’t seem concerned enough about.
What one might expect is a reply that conveys a greater sense of urgency.
“We assure the public we’re taking all steps to get to the bottom of the mistake to ensure something like this never happens again,” is a statement that still checks all the usual PR boxes, but at least shows a sense of ownership of the error and a resolve to correct it.