Amid public relations mess, Verizon changes throttling terms for public safety

Verizon is changing the terms of service for its public safety users, including police. (Pixabay)

Verizon said that it will change the terms of service for its throttling practices on its wireless plans for public safety users, including for police, firefighters and other first responders. The action comes just days after documents revealed that the company significantly slowed the data speeds of firefighters battling a wildfire in California amid their pleas for full-speed access to Verizon’s network.

Verizon's latest move also highlights the company’s shifting response to what is growing into a public relations debacle for the company.

First, in admitting that it made a mistake in throttling the LTE speeds of firefighters in California, Verizon said that “regardless of the plan emergency responders choose, we have a practice to remove data speed restrictions when contacted in emergency situations. We have done that many times, including for emergency personnel responding to these tragic fires. In this situation, we should have lifted the speed restriction when our customer reached out to us. This was a customer support mistake.”

Now, however, Verizon said that it will change its terms of service in order to offer a new plan that provides unlimited data with no usage caps or throttling, at least for two months. In a post on the carrier's website, Verizon’s Mike Maiorana, SVP of the operator’s public sector business, directly tied the move to the carrier’s failure to provide full-speed network access to the firefighters fighting the Mendocino blaze in California.

However, Tami Erwin, EVP of operations for Verizon, told Urgent Communications that “this is not a reaction to Santa Clara” and that Verizon had been working on these the new terms of service for the past eight months.

Regardless of the steps that led to today's announcement by Verizon, the carrier said that public safety users would be able to sign up for Verizon's new terms of service, and those terms of service would allow customers to exceed Verizon's 25 GB per month usage cap in two consecutive months without being subjected to throttling. As noted by Urgent Communications, data speeds for those customers would be throttled in the third month of usage but only to 3G speeds instead of 2G speeds. The new terms of service will also support priority access, which allows public safety users to access Verizon's network before other users in a congested area.

Verizon noted that the change to its terms of service would not involve any price changes but that public safety users would have to agree to the new terms of service because it represented a change in the operator’s contract with those users. The operator also said that it would need to check to make sure that the customers signing up for the plans are in fact public safety users and first responders.

Verizon's announcement comes just days after documents revealed that the carrier declined to lift a throttle on the wireless connections used by firefighters who were in the midst of battling a California wildfire. Those documents were released as part of an ongoing battle over net neutrality and whether wireless carriers can adjust customers’ access speeds.

Not surprisingly, the issue is turning into a major public relations situation for Verizon. For example, the Mercury News reported that a California State Assembly committee is meeting to gather information and hear testimony on Verizon slowed down the data speeds for the firefighters.

Separately, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a consumer advocacy organization that promotes net neutrality legislation, also took issue with the situation. “Verizon is making the very narrow claim that this wasn’t a clear violation of the 2015 Open Internet Order’s ban on throttling,” the association wrote on its website. “That intentionally misses the point. The 2015 order, by reclassifying ISPs under Title II of the Federal Communications Act, would have likely made what happened with the fire department illegal.”

The situation could significantly cut into Verizon's public safety business because AT&T is making a run at that sector of the market through its new partnership with FirstNet.

In response to questions on the topic, an AT&T FirstNet spokesperson said that “FirstNet does not throttle subscribers anywhere in the country.”

To be clear, throttling users after a set amount of data usage is common practice among all wireless carriers in the consumer space.