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Telecom giants battle bill which bans Internet service throttling for firefighters in emergencies


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Internet service providers (ISPs) and telecom firms are fighting a bill which would force them to provide unfettered broadband services and prevent them from throttling data use in emergency situations.

The proposed legislation is due to voted upon by California’s Communications and Conveyance Committee next week.

As reported by StateScoop, the bill — introduced in February — aims to prevent a repeat of what happened in summer 2018 during the Mendocino Complex Fire, one of the largest wildfires recorded in California’s history.

During the blaze, which erupted in July, two combined fires burned a combined 459,123 acres, destroyed 280 structures, and resulted in the death of one firefighter, as reported by the Sacramento Bee.

As firefighters from the Santa Clara County Central Fire Protection District fought to contain the fires, they found their Internet service drastically reduced, having been throttled in what Verizon Wireless later called a “customer support mistake.”

Such connectivity can be crucial in emergency situations to coordinate rescue and firefighting efforts. The fire department had an “unlimited” plan with Verizon, but Ars Technica reports this service was throttled to speeds of either 200kbps or 600kbps once 25GB — the monthly cap — was surpassed.

Verizon said at the time that the company has an internal policy to remove “data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations,” but this did not happen during the wildfires.

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To lift the throttling, instead, Verizon told the department to upgrade to a more expensive plan.

The new bill, AB 1699, would prevent Verizon and other ISPs from throttling public service plans in the same way as a consumer package in the future during emergency situations. However, vendors are opposing the legislation.

In a letter sent to California’s Communications and Conveyance Committee by industry lobby group CITA, the bill is described as having “vague mandates and problematic emergency trigger requirements.”

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Furthermore, the lobbyists argue that AB 1699’s requirement for broadband service providers to not “impair or degrade” services is “ambiguous” and could cause “serious unintended consequences” such as future litigation. 

“Data prioritization for first responders is already provided by major mobile wireless providers and wireless carriers need the flexibility to manage their network traffic for optimum performance, especially during disasters,” the letter reads.

The group also demonstrates concern over what can be considered an emergency, and how long an ISP would have to respond and change its usual subscription practices. The “emergency trigger,” too, should be limited to a state of emergency declared by either the US President or a governor, the letter says.

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According to a committee analysis of the bill, registered supporters are the California Central Valley Flood Control Association, the County of Santa Clara, the California Fire Chiefs Association and California Professional Firefighters, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the Fire Districts Association of California, and the Public Advocates Office.

The only registered opposition to the legislation is CITA.

“An essential component of emergency communication in the modern fire service is transmission and receipt of data,” says the California Professional Firefighters group. “Throttling data service can be disastrous to the public’s safety. Indeed, an [ISP’s] manipulation, or ‘throttling,’ of the data rates can render a fire department’s needed communication resources virtually useless during an emergency.”

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