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New Texas bill looks to prevent mobile phone throttling during disasters

The state wants to avoid what California firefighters endured during recent wildfires

Photo (c) Tzogia Kappatou - Getty Images
Net neutrality found itself at another fork in the road over the weekend, with the Texas State House of Representatives considering a bill to make throttling data during emergency situations unlawful.

Specifically, State Representative Bobby Guerra’s proposed bill lays out that, effective September 1, 2019, “mobile Internet service provider(s) may not impair or degrade lawful mobile Internet service access in an area subject to a declared state of disaster.”

Having had its fill of recent disasters like Hurricane Harvey, Texas wants to make sure it doesn’t suffer the same money grab that California did in the midst of its 2018 firestorm. During the Golden State’s incendiary ravage, Verizon was heavily criticized when it throttled the data plans of firefighters working at the Santa Clara County fire department.

“This throttling has had a significant impact on our ability to provide emergency services,” Santa Clara County Fire Chief Anthony Bowden said at the time. “Verizon imposed these limitations despite being informed that throttling was actively impeding County Fire’s ability to provide crisis-response and essential emergency services.”

Money over sense?

Reportedly, Bowden's staff approached Verizon to try to remedy the situation. While Verizon confirmed that throttling did occur, it agreed to restore the fire department to “essential” data speed if -- and only if -- the fire department upgraded to a new plan.

“If that situation sounds slightly ridiculous to you, you certainly aren't alone,” wrote Techspot. “The fire department was frustrated by Verizon's response, to say the least, and sent Verizon account manager Silas Buss a series of hectic emails in a desperate attempt to get the restrictions lifted.”

Reports say that Buss finally relented somewhat and offered a $99 plan that would cost the fire department an extra $8 per gigabyte once it reached its 20GB cap. Ars Technica reported the fire department decided that plan was the best fix, but only for the short-term.

Evan Greer, deputy director of the nonprofit advocacy group Fight for the Future, points out that Texas' proposed law could be a good first step towards restoring protections that were overturned by the current Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

"Telecommunications companies like Verizon, Comcast, and AT&T hold tremendous power. We saw during the wildfires in California that, without proper oversight, they can abuse this power in ways that not only undermine free speech but also public safety. It's great that states like Texas are pushing for legislation to hold these mega-corporations in check, but it's not a replacement for a functional FCC that is actually doing its job and protecting the public," Greer said in a statement to ConsumerAffairs. 

"Congress should act immediately to reverse Ajit Pai's repeal of basic open internet protections, and demand that the FCC engage in proper oversight of internet providers to ensure they don't behave in ways that put people in danger." 

Debate over an even internet playing field continues

All of this push-and-pull goes back to net neutrality -- the assumption that internet service providers should treat all transmission of data over the internet equally and not discriminate or charge differently based on user, content, website, platform, application, type of equipment, or method of communication.

In its power to the people stance, California has spared no effort to try to reverse the FCC's controversial decision to roll back Title II net neutrality protections.

However, the state’s attempts might be an uphill climb. FCC Chairman Ajit Pai claims that net neutrality, as envisioned by California law, hurts consumers. Pai says that under the law, large service providers like Verizon would be prohibited from offering some free data plans that he says allow consumers to stream video and music, exempt from any data limits.

“They have proven enormously popular in the marketplace, especially among lower-income Americans,” Pai said. “But notwithstanding the consumer benefits, this state law bans them.”

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