Pedestrians walk past a Verizon Communications Inc. store in San Francisco, California, U.S.(Photographer: David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Verizon’s Firefighter-Throttling Controversy Could Help AT&T

(Bloomberg) -- Verizon Communications Inc.’s snafu with limiting data speeds of California firefighters comes at an opportune time for rival AT&T Inc., which is striving to sign up public-safety customers to its FirstNet network.

As the No. 1 wireless carrier, Verizon has long had an edge in serving emergency responders. But AT&T was already ramping up the FirstNet system this year as a dedicated network for police, firefighters and other personnel. The company made the technology available at its more than 5,300 retail locations last month, aiming to reach local agencies across the U.S.

In the wake of Verizon’s high-profile gaffe, which involved limiting internet access during California’s wildfires, AT&T has a fresh talking point.

“This reinforces the need for FirstNet,” said Chris Sambar, senior vice president of FirstNet. “FirstNet does not throttle first responders anywhere in the country.”

Serving U.S. emergency agencies is big business. They require about 2 million lines, worth about $1.5 billion a year, according to Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics LLC. And agencies may now be more worried about service restrictions, he said.

Net-Neutrality Suit

The outcry surrounding Verizon stemmed from comments made by Santa Clara County’s fire chief, who said that Verizon heavily throttled its lines. That hampered the department’s ability to deploy personnel and fight the wildfires raging in California.

The context of the remarks was a lawsuit seeking to overturn the repeal of net-neutrality rules -- a rollback that critics say is bringing more throttling. But Verizon said it was a “customer-support mistake” and that its policy is to lift data-speed restrictions in an emergency. It had nothing to do with net neutrality, Verizon said.

In any case, Verizon now has a black eye.

“It really helps AT&T with its FirstNet push,” Entner said. “If I were on AT&T’s FirstNet team, I would hit every fire department and ambulance organization and say, ‘Look, this could happen to you.’”

Network Expansion

FirstNet is being built out with in a public-private partnership with the FirstNet Authority within the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Almost 1,500 public safety agencies in the U.S. have subscribed to the service as of last month. Over the next several years, the network should cover 95 percent of the U.S., FirstNet said. It’s already being tested in more than 40 states, including California.

The network offers several priority levels to users, helping ensure that the most urgent communications get through. And public-safety officials can temporarily boost the priority of civilian users during an incident -- say, in case utilities or transportation agencies need to help.

“FirstNet is designed with and for first responders to meet their needs in ways that other providers clearly aren’t,” Sambar said.

But Verizon isn’t standing still. In March, it launched a special network technology for first responders that gives them priority -- and is free.

“Public-safety users will have their data immediately recognized as public safety, with priority access at the tower and through the network,” the carrier said at the time.

Verizon also has been seeking greater interoperability with FirstNet. The company declined to comment on competition with AT&T.

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.