As if the repeal of net neutrality weren’t unpopular enough, Verizon’s decision to slow down the cellular connection used by firefighters as they battled a recent wildfire appears to have taken the longstanding fight to yet another level. In the wake of Verizon’s latest face-plant, a coalition of more than 1,000 firefighters, EMTs, paramedics, and other first responders have signed an open letter urging Congress to restore meaningful net neutrality rules. “We routinely place ourselves in dangerous situations to assist others and save lives,” the first responders said. “But since the Federal Communications Commission repealed net neutrality, the communication services we rely on to do our jobs are no longer meaningfully protected from being arbitrarily slowed, blocked, or otherwise degraded by internet service providers.”
Read More: Verizon Incompetence and Greed Leaves Firefighters Throttled During Wildfire The problem came to light when Santa Clara County Fire Department in California found its command and control vehicle’s cellular connection throttled to dial-up speeds, hindering its ability to coordinate a fire response. The department said the 50 Mbps “unlimited” Verizon data connection it purchased was routinely being slowed to speeds as low as 30 Kbps. “Throttling affects our ability to provide real-time updates and coordination of resources at these large fires,” said Adam Cosner of the California Professional Firefighters in a Reddit AMA. “When we were throttled we lost our IP phones, our ability to check the state database of resources, our ability to update the status of resources within the incident, and all of our situational tools.” While net neutrality rules allow for “reasonable network management” by cellular carriers during times of congestion, the firefighters say their connection was routinely throttled for no reason. When Santa Clara Fire Department complained to Verizon, Verizon’s first instinct wasn’t to fix the problem, but to upsell the department to a far more expensive plan. After the story gained nationwide attention, Verizon admitted that the throttling of first responders was in violation of Verizon’s own policies, but in a statement to Motherboard denied that the fracas had anything to do with net neutrality. In a report for NBC News, former FCC lawyer Gigi Sohn stated the FCC’s elimination of net neutrality rules also eliminated the first responders’ ability to complain to the FCC. If the rules had still been intact, the department could have complained that Verizon was unreasonably interfering with its ability to use broadband under the “general conduct rule,” Sohn noted.
“Verizon’s actions demonstrate plainly why net neutrality rules are needed: In the absence of rules, Verizon and other broadband providers will put profits over people even when it comes to matters of life and limb,” Sohn said. The first responders, with some help from the net neutrality activist group Fight For the Future, are attempting to force Congress to restore the rules using the Congressional Review Act, which allows any regulatory action to be overturned by a majority Congressional vote. While the CRA effort passed the Senate with a vote of 52-47 in May, it has faced a far steeper uphill climb in the House, where a discharge petition will need 218 votes to even see floor time, and another 218 votes to pass the measure. Should that succeed, it would still need to avoid a veto by President Trump. Should the CRA gambit fail, activists will be shifting their focus toward passing state-level net neutrality laws that largely mirror the discarded federal rules. California lawmakers are expected to vote on one such law (SB822) sometime this week, though broadband providers have been working overtime to scuttle the effort. Meanwhile, consumer groups, Mozilla, and 23 state attorneys general have also sued the FCC, highlighting how agency head Ajit Pai ignored hard data, countless experts, and the public interest in the ham-fisted repeal of the popular consumer protections. With firefighters, EMTs, and paramedics now joining the overwhelming majority of bipartisan Americans in support of net neutrality, the momentum to reverse the FCC’s handout to big telecom is only gaining steam as state-level battles escalate and this fall’s court battle looms.