Jessica Gang
Staff Writer

Cellular company T-Mobile agreed to pay $40 million in fines to the U.S. Treasury after the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) proved that the company purposefully used false ringtones, which are illegal. In hundreds of millions of calls, T-Mobile used ringtones to trick customers into believing they had service in rural areas. 

T-Mobile’s agreement came after the company first admitted to using false ringtones in October of 2017. At the time, T-Mobile (a unit of Deutsche Telekom AG) alleged that the problem was unintentional and promised to take steps to rectify the issue.

T-Mobile’s compliance with the fine is the result of a federal investigation that the FCC conducted. The investigation was initiated after the FCC received complaints from telephone companies and callers in rural Wisconsin claiming that although their calls never connected, ringing was still heard from the other end. The ringing was often for an indeterminate amount of time. This raised concerns that T-Mobile was prematurely establishing sound effects of connected calls without the call actually completing, even in areas without T-Mobile cell service.

Both T-Mobile’s actions and the FCC’s settlement with T-Mobile have drawn widespread criticism. “It is a basic tenet of the nation’s phone system that calls be completed to the called party, without a reduction in the call quality — even when the calls pass through intermediate provider,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, according to a statement that Reuters obtained on April 16. 

Democratic FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn also denounced T-Mobile and called the company’s transgressions “massively deceptive and harmful,” according to Reuters. Clyburn’s criticisms also extended to the FCC’s punishment for T-Mobile, which she argued was not severe enough for the violation and does not help T-Mobile users affected by the false ringtones. Clyburn stated that there is “nothing in this consent decree to compensate consumers.”

The effect of the false ringtones on T-Mobile customers has yet to be formally assessed, but Clyburn suggested some ramifications that could result from the company’s fabricated cell service coverage. Ramifications include families being cut off from relatives, doctors being unable to reach patients in rural areas, and small businesses losing revenue in addition to the money lost by paying for an ineffective service.  

T-Mobile’s settlement is the sixth settlement related to rural connectivity that the FCC has encountered thus far. In 2015, Verizon paid a $5 million fine to settle a government inquiry as to why the company failed to address landline and wireless connectivity problems in rural areas. Verizon also spent an additional $3 million on compliance programs which centered on developing a system specifically designed to identify rural call complaints. The money also went towards sponsoring workshops and studies about how to best detect and resolve problems with rural connectivity.

The FCC has spent the last few years trying to improve wireless connectivity in rural areas. Guidelines on the FCC website encourage callers who live in rural areas or areas with weak cell service to report any instances of “dead air” after dialing, or any calls where the phone rings 10-20 times without answer.

The FCC gives special attention to companies like T-Mobile that fake cell service because the FCC is in charge of regulating interstate and international communications by radio, satellite, wire, television, and cable. In the digital age, the FCC has also now taken charge of internet regulation, which it refers to as a type of “telecommunications.”

This means that major companies like T-Mobile, Verizon, Facebook, Google, and Apple all fall under the purview of FCC regulations, which enables the FCC to launch federal investigations into corporations to protect public interests.