T-Mobile fined $40M due to rural call completion issues

A sunset over a barn structure
The FCC fine centers on calls in rural areas. (Getty/ehrlif)

The FCC said it levied a $40 million fine against T-Mobile because the carrier didn’t properly handle rural and out-of-network calls.

“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 providers,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said in a statement from the agency (PDF). “The FCC is committed to ensuring that phone calls to all Americans, including rural Americans, go through.”

The NTCA, which represents rural broadband carriers, cheered the FCC’s fine. “Rural consumers and businesses have suffered rural call failure since 2010,” said NTCA CEO Shirley Bloomfield in a statement. “Continued vigilance on the part of industry and the Commission, combined with enforceable regulatory backstops, clearly remain essential to ensure that rural call failure will not compromise the integrity of our nation’s networks and the safety and welfare of rural communities.”

The FCC said the fine centers on an order the agency issued in 2013 called the “Rural Call Completion Order.” The order forbade telecom providers from playing the standard “ring ring” to people who place a call before that call is actually connected to the recipient’s phone—dubbed “false ring tones.”

“An originating or intermediate provider may do this to mask the silence that the caller would otherwise hear during excessive call setup time,” the FCC noted. “False audible ringing can also make it appear to the caller that the terminating rural provider is responsible for the call failure, instead of the originating or intermediate provider.”

The agency said that in 2016 it received a number of complaints from rural incumbent LECs in Wisconsin about T-Mobile playing ring tones before calls were connected. T-Mobile said at the time that it looked into the matter and had resolved the problem.

However, the FCC said complaints continued and so the agency issued a “Letter of Inquiry” to the company. And after looking at the issue more carefully, T-Mobile said it discovered it had been playing millions of false ring tones each year.

Specifically: “T-Mobile reported that in 2007 it began using servers that included a ‘Local Ring Back Tone’ (LRBT) for calls from certain customers that took more than a certain amount of time to complete. The company further reported that in 2013, as it migrated to different servers, it began using the LRBT only for the out-of-network calls from its customers that were routed via Session Initiation Protocol (SIP) trunks and that took more than a certain amount of time to complete, and that it continued its practice of using the LRBT on such calls (and expanded the LRBT to cover such calls on additional SIP routes) after the FCC rule prohibiting the practice went into effect in January 2014. Because T-Mobile applied this practice to out-of-network calls from its customers on SIP routes that took more than a certain amount of time on a nationwide basis and without regard to time of day, the LRBT was likely injected into hundreds of millions of calls each year.”

This isn’t the first time T-Mobile has faced an FCC fine. For example, the FCC fined T-Mobile $819,000 in 2014 for not meeting the commission's hearing aid requirements.