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Verizon makes changes as lawmakers decry firefighters’ woes

A nationwide telecommunications company rolled out changes Friday as state lawmakers said they were outraged to learn that Verizon slowed Northern California firefighters’ internet service while they battled what became the state’s largest-ever wildfire.

Verizon said it removed all speed cap restrictions for emergency workers fighting wildfires on the West Coast and for those in Hawaii, where emergency crews were rescuing people Friday from areas flooded by Hurricane Lane. The company promised to lift restrictions on public safety customers and provide full network access when other disasters arise.

The announcement came hours before the state Assembly Select Committee on Natural Disaster, Response, Recovery, and Rebuilding held an informational hearing on the incident.

Lawmakers are angered by the incident and committed to making it sure it never happens again, said Democratic Assemblyman Marc Levine of San Rafael.

The goal is to determine “how we ensure that all public safety has the tools they need in some of our hardest moments in California’s history battling these natural disasters,” added Democratic Assemblywoman Monique Limon of Santa Barbara. “These are becoming regrettably the norm in our state and as they become the norm we also change how we think about policies.”

The Santa Clara County Fire Department says Verizon slowed its internet communications at a wildfire command center three weeks ago, crippling the emergency communications truck’s data speeds and forcing firefighters to use other agencies’ internet connections and their personal cellphones.

The county disclosed the problem in a court filing last week supporting a lawsuit brought by 22 state attorneys general seeking to restore net neutrality rules repealed by the Federal Communications Commission. The filing alleges that the slowdown was caused by the FCC’s action, which allows telecommunications to slow internet speed to selected customers.

California lawmakers are considering a bill that would require internet companies to restore net neutrality in California, requiring equal data access to all customers.

But Dave Hickey, Verizon’s vice president of business and government sales, told lawmakers that what he called an error by the company had nothing to do with net neutrality.

Rather, the county had used up its monthly data capacity under an internet plan that allows Verizon to significantly slow service. The department bought a government high-speed wireless data plan that provides an unlimited amount of data at a set monthly cost, but the company reduces speeds if the buyer exceeds its monthly allotment until the next billing cycle.

Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden called unlimited data flow “critical to public safety” but said public agencies do not have unlimited funds and try to find an affordable plan that will meet their needs.

He also called for increasing protections to cell towers in fire-damaged or fire-prone areas to maintain critical communications and warnings to area residents as well as first responders in emergencies.

Bowden said Verizon restored full speeds only after the department subscribed to a more expensive plan.

That shouldn’t have been necessary, Hickey said, because the company’s policy is to immediately remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations.

He blamed an “operational error” for the company’s failure to lift the data cap as soon as firefighters called. Instead, a Verizon representative told the county to upgrade to a more expensive package.

Verizon is rolling out a new plan next week for first responders nationwide that will have no such restrictions and data priority access, at no additional cost.

“They will have the best traffic to be able to get through,” Hickey promised.

Rudolph Reyes, Verizon’s west region vice president and associate general counsel, read a statement saying the company “didn’t live up to our own promise of service and performance excellence when our process failed some first responders on the line, battling a massive California wildfire. For that, we are truly sorry. And we’re making every effort to ensure that it never happens again.”

Meanwhile, a bipartisan conference committee could advance compromise legislation Friday to reduce the threat posed by wildfires. After weeks of negotiations, lawmakers have ruled out a controversial proposal backed by California Gov. Jerry Brown to reduce liability for electric utilities when their equipment causes wildfires, but their plan could include cash to remove dead trees or other measures to make fires less frequent and less severe.

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