A little more than a decade ago, Verizon Wireless settled a dispute with the New York Attorney General over the definition of “unlimited” data. As part of the settlement, Verizon was forced to reimburse consumers to the tune of $1 million after a nine-month investigation found it was advertising wireless connections as “unlimited,” but then kicking users off of the Verizon Wireless network for “excessive use”—without disclosing the hidden limits of these connections. Ten years later and it’s not clear that Verizon has learned much of anything from the experience.
The company made headlines again this week after a brief filed by net neutrality advocates highlighted that Verizon had throttled the “unlimited” data connection of the Santa Clara County Fire Department as it struggled to battle the Mendocino Complex Fire, one of the largest forest fires in California’s history. Verizon Wireless routinely embeds all manner of limits in its unlimited mobile data plans, including restrictions on HD streaming, restrictions on the use of phones as modems or hotspots, and a general 25 GB consumption limit that results in users having their connections throttled to a crawl. In this case, Verizon’s throttling caveat wound up crippling the cellular connection embedded in “OES 5262,” a mobile command and control vehicle the department uses to manage and coordinate emergency response. Instead of a 50 Mbps connection, the fire department was left trying to battle a raging fire with the equivalent of a dial-up modem (30 kbps). Emails last June from Fire Captain Justin Stockman to Verizon show this wasn’t the first time this had happened. “Verizon is currently throttling OES 5262 so severely that it's hampering operations for the assigned crew,” Stockman wrote. “This is not the first time we have had this issue. In December of 2017 while deployed to the Prado Mobilization Center supporting a series of large wildfires, we had the same device with the same SIM card also throttled.”
Verizon’s own internal policies state that such restrictions aren’t supposed to apply to first responder connections. But when the department contacted Verizon, the company’s first reaction wasn’t to immediately fix the problem—but to try and upsell the Fire Department to a new wireless plan that was twice as expensive. Instead of its original $38 per month plan, the fire department was told it would need to pony up for a $100 per month unlimited plan. And even that “unlimited” option involved very real limits, including a 20 GB monthly cap and $8 per gigabyte overage fees should that limit be exceeded.
That’s not particularly surprising for an industry with some of the worst customer satisfaction ratings in America. Nor is it particularly surprising for a company that routinely embeds arbitrary restrictions on its unlimited lines in a bid to upsell you to more expensive services they may not actually need. For example, Verizon users need to shell out significantly more for HD video to actually function as intended on these lines. Thousands of rural Verizon customers sold “unlimited” connections have also frequently found themselves kicked off the Verizon network for using an unspecified but “significant amount of data." While not surprising, it’s still a major scandal for a company that just spent millions of dollars and countless lobbying man hours to dismantle the FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules. Then repeatedly tried to claim that wasn’t actually happening. This denial remains firmly intact. “This situation has nothing to do with net neutrality or the current proceeding in court,” Verizon told Motherboard in an email exchange. But the FCC’s discarded rules allowed ISPs to throttle connections in period of network congestion under guidelines allowing for “reasonable network management.” Such throttling is only supposed to kick in during periods of congestion (the fire department says it was throttled all of the time, regardless of network load), and never for first responders. Had the net neutrality rules still been intact, the Santa Clara fire department could have filed a formal complaint with the FCC about Verizon’s “unjust or unreasonable prices and practices,” a process that has since been dismantled thanks in large part to Verizon and FCC boss Ajit Pai, a former Verizon lawyer. Verizon was at least willing to concede that its support staff made a mistake in failing to adequately explain the hidden limits of the plan, and in failing to remove the limits when contacted by first responders.
“We made a mistake in how we communicated with our customer about the terms of its plan,” Verizon told Motherboard. “Regardless of the plan emergency responders choose, we have a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations,” the company said. “In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us. This was a customer support mistake. We are reviewing the situation and will fix any issues going forward.” But this goes well beyond just terrible customer service, which in the telecom sector is a feature, not a bug. Verizon has spent the better part of the last two decades fighting transparency rules, fighting net neutrality, and trying to eliminate all meaningful oversight of the company’s mono/duopolies in wireless and wired broadband. That these efforts culminated in such a monumental face plant should surprise nobody. In a functioning democracy, Verizon’s decision to unfairly throttle and then upsell first responders would result in a meaningful inquiry and substantive punishment. In the Ajit Pai era, you should expect Verizon’s potentially-fatal incompetence to barely warrant a second glance.