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T-Mobile to pay $40 million after using fake ring tones on some customer calls

The Seattle Times — By Rachel Lerman The Seattle Times

April 16-- Bellevue, Wash., telecom T-Mobile has been cited by the federal government for using fake ring tones on some customers' calls – sounds that made the caller think the phone was ringing on the recipient's side, when it really wasn't.

T-Mobile has agreed to pay a $40 million settlement to end a Federal Communications Commission investigation that found some of its customers weren't able to complete calls to certain rural areas.

The investigation started in 2016 when the FCC heard from a few customers and rural telephone companies in Wisconsin that some calls originating on T-Mobile phones weren't reaching phones in three rural areas. As the FCC investigated, it found seven more areas with the same issues and found the company hadn't fixed the issues after learning about them.

Exacerbating the rural woes, it seems some customers thought their calls were going through and the other person just wasn't answering. Since 2007, T-Mobile had been inserting ringing sounds on the caller's end when service was slow and a connection hadn't actually been made to the recipient's phone, according to the settlement documents.

In 2014, the FCC enacted a rule prohibiting telecom providers from using false rings, which disguise poor connections. T-Mobile, the settlement said, continued the practice on some out-of-network calls, totaling hundreds of millions of calls every year.

T-Mobile said Monday that the false-ringtone issue was an unintentional oversight that was fixed in January 2017.

"T-Mobile is committed to all of our customers across the country," the company said in a statement.

T-Mobile's coverage has historically been stronger in urban areas. As it starts implementing its new low-band spectrum, which it won during the federal spectrum auction last year, it is expected to improve coverage in rural areas.

As part of the settlement, T-Mobile will make plans for dealing with rural call issues, including working with immediate providers in those areas to improve connections. It will report issues and solutions to the FCC.

T-Mobile, which had revenue of $40.6 billion last year, has paid previous fines as part of settlements with the FCC. It was fined $17.5 million in 2015 after two 911 outages, and it paid $48 million in 2016 to settle an investigation over claims that marketing campaigns for its unlimited-data plan were misleading.

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