T-Mobile USA has agreed to pay a $40 million fine to federal regulators after admitting to using "false ring tones" to make it appear as though rural phone calls were going through.
The telecommunications giant was accused of inserting false ring tones on millions of calls made from and to rural areas where its coverage is not as comprehensive as it is in American cities.
The fake tones gave callers the impression that their call was going through, but just wasn't being picked up, when in fact the call wasn't going through at all.
In a settlement with the Federal Communications Commission this week, T-Mobile admitted to inserting the false ring tones as well as not correcting "problems with delivery of calls to certain rural areas."
It'll pay a $40 million fine, but will not have to pay any compensation to customers. At the end of 2017, Statista estimated T-Mobile has more than 72 million customers in the U.S.
The problem with false ring tones
The FCC said that with coverage in rural areas not as robust as cities, rural call completion has "significant and immediate public interest ramifications."
The problems, it says, "cause rural businesses to lose revenue, impede medical professionals from reaching patients in rural areas, cut families off from their relatives, and create the potential for dangerous delays in public safety communications."
"False ring tones cause callers to believe that the phone is ringing at the called party's premises when it is not," it continues. "A caller may then hang up, thinking no one is available to receive the call. False ring tones also create a misleading impression that a caller's service provider is not responsible if the call fails."
T-Mobile says it was 'unintentional'
False ring tones have been banned since 2014. T-Mobile has used them since 2007, referring to it as the "Local Ring Back Tone."
It changed its practice so that false ring tones were only applied for certain out-of-network calls in 2013, but despite the ban coming into force in 2014, it continued the practice.
The FCC estimates hundreds of millions of false ring tone calls have been made on T-Mobile networks since then.
Ars Technica reported that T-Mobile claimed in a statement that this continued use of false ring tones after they were outlawed was "unintentional."
"T-Mobile is committed to all of our customers across the country," T-Mobile said. "Our actions have always been focused on better serving our customers, and the ringtone oversight, which was corrected in January 2017, was unintentional. We have settled this matter – and will continue to focus on our mission."