The whole idea behind the 911 emergency service is that it’s available whenever a phone is within reach. That wasn’t the case, however, during a significant part of 2014 for some Sprint customers -- and now the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is making the company pay for it.
The FCC announced Thursday that it is fining Sprint almost $1.2 million for inhibiting access to 911 calls for hearing-impaired citizens over a six-month period.
From March 28 through September 18, 2014, Sprint customers who used the Internet Protocol Captioned Telephone Service (IP CTS) were unable to make calls to 911. IP CTS provides a service similar to closed captioning. Users who attempted to use the service during that time complained that their calls weren’t going through. Even so, Sprint continued to collect an FCC subsidy for keeping the service up and running during those months.
Money To Be Returned
To settle the matter, Sprint is admitting that it was unable to accept and handle emergency calls through its wireless IP CTS, and made inaccurate submissions to the Telecommunications Relay Service (TRS) Fund administrator. Sprint has promised to implement a compliance plan and will pay a $1.175 million civil penalty.
It will also be required to file regular compliance reports with the FCC’s enforcement bureau until the consent decree expires. Finally, Sprint will reimburse the TRS Fund for the money Sprint accepted but was not entitled to collect. Sprint has agreed to the enforcement bureau’s sanctions and has waived any right to challenge them.
TRS providers must be capable of handling any type of call normally provided by telecommunications carriers, including 911 calls, said the FCC's enforcement bureau in an order released Thursday.
Sprint has been obligated to offer several forms of TRS, including IP CTS, since 2008. The company found in an internal investigation that on March 28, 2014, during a vendor’s routine maintenance procedure, a communications path was mistakenly reset.
As a result, 911 calls were not placed in high-priority queues ahead of non-emergency calls as required. Sprint should have directed the calls to the appropriate public safety answering points, such as a local emergency authority that corresponds to the caller's location. Instead, an error message was sent to Sprint’s wireless IP CTS application causing the application to disconnect 911 calls.
Only wireless 911 calls were affected by the error. The problem was fixed after Sprint was notified of it by the federal Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.
Sprint is far from the only wireless carrier to find itself on the wrong side of the FCC lately. T-Mobile was fined $17.5 million in July over 911 outages that affected 50 million of its subscribers. Verizon was fined $3.4 million over a 911 outage that affected several states in its service area. And AT&T was fined $100 million, the largest fine in FCC history, for misleading customers about unlimited data, then throttling the speeds of some smartphone customers.