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FCC says T-Mobile US unit failed blind customer • The Register

FCC says T-Mobile US unit failed blind customer • The Register
FCC says T-Mobile US unit failed blind customer • The Register


In January 2021, Kenneth Geaniton, a blind consumer who subscribed to the Lifeline service provided by T-Mobile US offshoot Assurance Wireless, found he couldn’t access the service after his feature phone died.

But according to an order handed down this week by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), that was just the beginning of a three-year journey that allegedly included months-long pauses in service provision, required Geaniton to make multiple calls to customer service to perform simple functions, and much back and forth with inappropriate devices being sent. The document details Assurance’s alleged failures to comply with multiple sections of the Communications Act and lists what the service provider needs to do.

In 2021, Geaniton had been an Assurance customer for over a decade, using a push button feature phone with a screen reader, rather than a touchscreen smartphone, for reasons that would be immediately apparent to readers with visual disabilities or techies with 20/20 vision and a little imagination. But according to the FCC order, Geaniton has spent years filing complaints, receiving several seemingly unsuitable devices with and without screen readers, starting with a smartphone he was unable to use.

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Now the federal agency has said that Assurance, which receives subsidies from the FCC under the terms of the Lifeline program, needs to make things right with Geaniton and make sure the next visually impaired customer doesn’t face the same uphill battle.

Lifeline is a FCC program that, as part of the Universal Service Fund, provides qualifying low-income consumers with voice telephony service, broadband internet service, or bundled voice broadband packages through eligible telecommunications carriers. The service bundle is supposed to include a free mobile phone.

According to the order [PDF], an infuriating read, the company said in its defense that it had “manufacturer representations” that it had a device in its portfolio that was operable “in at least one mode” without vision. It said it relied on the OEMs that make the phones “to ensure the accessibility and usability of any of the provided devices.”

But the FCC disagreed this was sufficient, stating: “Even if the devices had one mode that was operable without vision, Assurance is a service provider and as such it had a responsibility under the Rules to ensure that the devices it provided to Mr Geaniton – as the input/control function to the service – were appropriately integrated into and synced up with the Lifeline service provided by Assurance to Mr Geaniton.”

The order claims that at one point, Geaniton was provided with a feature phone, a Coolpad Belleza. “However, the phone was not activated, and he could not make or receive phone calls.”

“As of March 22, 2023, Mr Geaniton was still unable to make or receive calls using the provided Coolpad and a network ticket was submitted. The Company’s records indicate the network ticket was still being investigated as late as April 5, 2023. On May 10, 2023, Mr Geaniton submitted another [Request for Dispute Assistance with the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau] alleging that he continued to be unable to make or receive calls because the Coolpad still had not been activated. On May 18, 2023, T-Mobile engineers identified and resolved the provisioning issue for the provided Coolpad. However, a Company representative further identified that the Coolpad did not have a native screen reader as requested.”

It added:

By September 2023, Geaniton found he could once again not make calls, according to the filing. After he filed another Request for Dispute Assistance (RDA) with the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau (CGB) in October 20, the order says that the company eventually transported him “to a store location for assistance … after over a year of service interruptions and his filing of five (5) RDAs with the CGB.”

The order notes: “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.”

The complainant told the FCC that the service was restored until December 16, 2023, when he claimed to have once again experienced an additional service interruption. This time, according to the document, he filed a complaint with the FCC itself, which it served on Assurance in January.

Under the terms of this week’s order, Assurance needs to identify a device accessible to Geaniton that is compatible with Assurance’s network, and allows him to “reliably access and use” Assurance’s Lifeline service.

It also has to make sure its customer support personnel have trained people capable of providing accessibility information and troubleshooting issues that make Assurance’s service unusable to consumers with disabilities, as well as make information on accessibility features on the devices Assurance provides publicly available.

Lastly, the FCC asked the mobile arm to implement a complaint system that “tracks complaints alleging accessibility issues” so representatives can have in front of them what actions were previously taken with a specific consumer.

The Reg has asked Assurance parent T-Mobile for comment. ®

FCC says T-Mobile US unit failed blind customer • The Register

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