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Texas lawmaker wants to ban mobile throttling in disaster areas

The Texas state flag.
Enlarge / Texas’ state flag.

A Texas lawmaker is proposing a state law that would prohibit wireless carriers from throttling mobile Internet service in disaster areas.

Bobby Guerra, a Democratic member of the Republican-controlled Texas House of Representatives, filed the bill last week. “A mobile Internet service provider may not impair or degrade lawful mobile Internet service access in an area subject to a declared state of disaster,” the bill says. If passed, it would take effect on September 1, 2019.

The bill, reported by NPR affiliate KUT, appears to be a response to Verizon’s throttling of an “unlimited” data plan used by Santa Clara County firefighters during a wildfire response in California last year. But Guerra’s bill would prohibit throttling in disaster areas of any customer, not just public safety officials.

Wireless carriers often sell plans with a set amount of high-speed data and then throttle speeds after a customer has passed the high-speed data limit. Even with so-called “unlimited” plans, carriers reserve the right to throttle speeds once customers use a certain amount of data each month.

Despite the Verizon/Santa Clara incident, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has taken no action to prevent further incidents of throttling during emergencies. Pai’s repeal of Obama-era net neutrality rules allows throttling as long as the carrier discloses it, and the commission is trying to prevent states from imposing their own net neutrality rules.

Verizon said its throttling in Santa Clara was a customer-support error. The throttling might not have been prevented even if net neutrality rules were still in place, but Pai’s FCC has largely abandoned its oversight authority over broadband providers’ network management practices, letting carriers choose when and where to throttle.

The FCC’s net neutrality repeal is being challenged in a federal appeals court, and the repeal’s effect on public safety and state laws played a major role in oral arguments earlier this month. No ruling has been issued yet, but US Circuit Judge Patricia Millett criticized the FCC for failing to address public safety in its repeal order. Circuit Judge Robert Wilkins pointed out that the FCC’s attempt to preempt state laws, if allowed, could prevent states from prohibiting throttling of firefighters’ broadband service.

California passed a net neutrality law but agreed to delay enforcement until the lawsuit against the FCC is resolved.

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