FCC Lets Carriers Automatically Block Robocalls, But Mandate Threat Remains

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The FCC voted Thursday to let phone companies automatically block illegal and unwanted robocalls from reaching consumers, rather than requiring their subscribers to opt-in to call blocking. Trade associations USTelecom and CTIA praised the move.

While many carriers offer blocking tools now on an opt-in basis, the declaratory ruling passed by the Commission clarifies carriers can provide blocking as a default, as long as their customers are informed and have the opportunity to opt out.    

There was some disagreement over whether the blocking would be free. Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel argued the FCC should make carriers offer anti-robocall tech for free. Yesterday’s ruling makes no such requirement, she noted, adding: “I’m not interested in pinky promises.”

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks agreed. “If we see carriers are charging” for blocking robocalls, he has language ready, “to propose rules prohibiting them from doing so.”

Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the agency should not block legal robocalls, such as flight notifications or prescription information. He said he’s cautious “about giving carriers the right to decide” that.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has urged the industry to get moving on voluntarily adopting call authentication tech, but he’s lately been raising the threat of imposing a mandate.

Last year, he demanded that the telecom implement robust caller ID authentication by the end of 2019. He said he’s optimistic, “the year-end deadline will be met.” But if not, “the FCC will not hesitate to take regulatory action. That is why today, we are taking the necessary steps so that we will be in a position to take regulatory action next year, should that be required,” he said.

Industry trade associations were quick to respond. USTelecom leads the Industry Traceback Group, consisting of nearly 30 representatives from the wireline, wireless, VoIP and cable industries that traces and identifies the source of illegal robocalls. The group coordinates with federal and state law enforcement agencies to bring illegal robocallers to justice.

USTelecom called the FCC move “an important step.” USTelecom SVP Policy and Advocacy Patrick Halley stated: “Greater flexibility for carriers is a win for consumers. The work is far from done, however, and we look forward to working with the Commission and other stakeholders to further incentivize the ongoing industry innovation required to stop the scamming, spoofing and endless aggravation of phone users.”

“The FCC took another important step towards relieving American consumers from the plague of illegal and unwanted robocalls by ensuring they can automatically benefit from innovative call blocking tools and make informed decisions about which calls they want to receive,” said CTIA VP Regulatory Affairs Matthew Gerst. The organization thanked the agency, “for continuing to make clear that protecting consumers from the scourge of robocalls is a bipartisan priority.”

by Leslie Stimson, Inside Towers Washington Bureau Chief

June 7, 2019

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