T-Mobile subsidiary gets scolded by the FCC for the way it treated a blind man

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T-Mobile is the parent company of Assurance Wireless acquiring it in the Sprint transaction. Assurance is a subsidized telephone service that is funded by the federal Lifeline Assistance program. The program provides to eligible low-income Americans a free phone, free monthly data, unlimited texting, and free monthly minutes. In January 2021, Kenneth Geaniton, a blind man, was a subscriber to the Lifeline program offered by Assurance when his feature phone died which prevented him from accessing what was literally his lifeline.

By 2021, Geaniton had been an Assurance subscriber for more than 10 years, and due to his handicap, a touchscreen smartphone was not something he wanted. Instead, he used a feature phone with a screen reader because that was easier for him with his handicap. But according to an order imposed on Assurance by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Geaniton could not get a proper replacement for his feature phone.

What did the FCC accuse T-Mobile’s Assurance Wireless of doing?

The T-Mobile-owned Assurance, according to the FCC order, failed to comply with multiple sections of the Communications Act which led Geaniton over the last three years to endure months-long delays in service, forced him to call customer service numerous times in order to get simple tasks done, and deal with shipments back and forth of devices that he could not operate because of his lack of vision. Some phones arrived without a screen reader and the first new device he was shipped was a smartphone which was useless to him.
At one point, Mr. Geaniton was sent a feature phone called the Coolpad Belleza. Perhaps the problems could have ended there. But the FCC wrote, “However, the phone was not activated, and he could not make or receive phone calls.” That was still the situation in March 2023 and on May 10th, the consumer filed yet another complaint. On May 18, 2023, T-Mobile engineers finally found an issue that kept the phone from connecting to the network. But the company stated that the Coolpad phone did not have a native screen reader as requested by the consumer.

According to the order issued by the FCC, dated July 2nd, the regulatory agency concluded that Assurance Wireless “violated sections 255(c) and 716(b)(1) of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended (the Act), and sections 6.5(b)(1) and 14.20(a)(2) of the Commission’s rules (Rules) by failing to ensure its Lifeline service is accessible to and usable by individuals with vision disabilities.  In addition, we conclude that Assurance violated section 14.31(a) of the Rules by failing to create and maintain records documenting its efforts to implement sections 255, 716, and 718 of the Act with regards to its Lifeline service.”

Assurance mentioned to the FCC that it was told by a manufacturer that at least one device it offered to Lifeline subscribers could be operated in one mode without vision. The T-Mobile-owned Assurance said that it relied on what phone manufacturers told it “to ensure the accessibility and usability of any of the provided devices.”

It’s another bad look for T-Mobile which is losing its reputation as a consumer-first company

By September 2023, Geaniton could not make calls again; after filing a Request for Dispute Assistance (RDA) with the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGB) in October of that same year, he was transported by the company to a store location where they found that the device was in Airplane Mode. As the FCC wrote in its order, “The Company’s records indicate that Mr. Geaniton’s device was in Airplane Mode and service was restored by simply turning the Airplane Mode off … A simple question may have disclosed the nature of Mr. Geaniton’s problem.”

Last December, the consumer could not use the phone, and this time he filed a complaint directly with the FCC. The regulatory agency ordered that Assurance find a device that Geaniton can use that is compatible with Assurance’s Lifeline service. It also has to train the customer service team so that they can help Assurance’s handicapped subscribers use their devices. The FCC also wants Assurance to create a system that “tracks complaints alleging accessibility issues” so that when a specific consumer calls, the rep handling the call will know what steps were tried in the past.

In the wake of numerous issues that have made T-Mobile seem less like the Un-carrier it used to be, this is yet another black mark on the nation;s second largest wireless provider.


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