In May, I joined my Democratic colleagues on the state and federal level in denouncing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) decision to repeal Net Neutrality rules.
Net Neutrality was intended to keep the internet free and accessible, while treating all content equally on the internet. At least that’s the way the Obama administration saw it. Thanks to Donald Trump’s changes to the regulations, which allows internet service providers to block, slow, or give preferential treatment to certain online sites, services or content, we are quickly learning the potential life-threatening consequences of these decisions.
In July, Santa Clara County firefighters were helping to battle the massive Mendocino Complex fire. As a part of their procedures, they utilize the internet to assist in their efforts to get information out to the public about evacuation routes, disseminate fire maps online during emergencies, or in many other ways.
Understanding the nature of their responsibilities, the Santa Clara County Fire Department purchased what they thought was an unlimited data plan from Verizon. Yet, while fighting one of the largest fires in recent state history, their internet provider slowed down, or what is known as “throttled” down their data connection. You have likely had it happen to you as well. Perhaps you have noticed that some of your internet searches are taking longer than usual or you’ve received a message from your provider saying you have exceeded your monthly plan limit for data. You are told that the speed of your internet will slow down, but if you like you can purchase more speed until your plan starts up again for the next billing cycle. This is exactly what the Santa Clara County Fire Department was told when they reached out to Verizon to question why their internet speed was moving so slowly.
Verizon said that, in emergency situations, they have a “practice” to remove data speed restrictions for emergency responders. But that’s not what happened. Most frustrating is the idea that while fighting a fire, the department would be expected to figure out that they have exceeded their data plan and call the provider. In their defense, Verizon said this wasn’t about Net Neutrality but a customer service mistake. However, when trying to change the laws, internet providers argued that “throttling” would benefit emergency responders. Santa Clara’s experience doesn’t back that up.
A number of states have taken notice of this situation and other concerns. They have filed a federal lawsuit, in which 21 states and the District of Columbia seeking to overturn the FCC’s repeal of net neutrality rules. In addition, individual states continue to consider their own laws that require state contracts only be awarded to internet service providers that are compliant with net neutrality guidelines. I am working on similar drafts of legislation to protect Wisconsin residents and first responders from ever having to experience what Santa Clara County firefighters went through.