FCC Comm Geoffrey Starks Is Disappointed With How Carriers Move To Block Robocall By Default

Photo: FCC Website

A month after the Federal Communication Commission voted to allow telecom carriers and service providers to block spam calls and other forms of robocalls by default, the regulating body seems to be very disappointed with how telecom companies responded to the regulation.

In June, FCC Commissioner Geoffrey Starks sent letters to major telecom providers in the US to expedite their implementation of the new ruling and to come up with policies and features that would, once and for all, address the growing problem of robocalls in the U.S.

Today, the disappointed Commission published the responses of major telecom carriers to his letter and his public reply to how slow the said companies are implementing necessary improvements in their system.

“I appreciate the timely responses to my letters. Transparency is critical to good policymaking, so I am publicly releasing the complete responses of the carriers – so that everyone can read their responses in their own words. Despite historically clamoring for new tools, it does not appear that all providers have acted with haste to deploy opt-out robocall blocking services,” said Commissioner Geoffrey Starks.

“The Commission spoke clearly: we expect opt-out call blocking services to be offered to consumers for free. Reviewing the substance of these responses, by and large, carriers’ plans for these services are far from clear,” he lamented.

In June 2019, Commissioner Starks voted on a Declaratory Ruling and Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking that clarified that voice service providers could, without violating Commission rules, deploy call blocking offered to consumers by default on an informed opt-out basis. The action expressed the Commission’s expectation that these services would be offered to consumers for free and, at Commissioner Starks’ request, directed Commission staff to prepare reports on the state of deployment of robocall blocking tools, including whether fees are being charged for the services.

“The reports will be submitted to the Commission no later than 12 months, for the first report, and 24 months, for the second report, after the publication of the item in the Federal Register. Following the delivery of the first report, the Commission will assess whether consumers are being charged and if so, will seek comment on rules requiring providers that offer these services to do so for free,” says the statement from Commissioner Starks.

Furthermore, the Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking would propose a safe harbor for providers that implement network-wide blocking of calls that fail caller authentication under the SHAKEN/STIR framework once it is implemented.

“Allowing call blocking by default could be a big benefit for consumers who are sick and tired of robocalls. By making it clear that such call blocking is allowed, the FCC will give voice service providers the legal certainty they need to block unwanted calls from the outset so that consumers never have to get them,” said Chairman Pai. “And, if this decision is adopted, I strongly encourage carriers to begin providing these services by default—for free—to their current and future customers. I hope my colleagues will join me in supporting this latest attack on unwanted robocalls and spoofing.”

In response to that order, Commissioner Starks asked 14 telecoms to inform the Commission of their plans to offer free robocall-blocking services by default.

Unwanted calls, including illegal robocalls, are the top consumer complaint at the FCC, with more than 200,000 received annually. Some private analyses estimate that U.S. consumers received approximately 2.4 billion robocalls per month in 2016. Advancements in technology make it cheap and easy to make robocalls and to “spoof” Caller ID information to hide the caller’s true identity.

Last week, telecom giant AT&T announced that they are blocking fraud robocalls by default with no extra charge. However, succeeding and more accurate blocking features comes with a $4 monthly price tag.

The new anti-robocalling feature is an expansion of the already existing AT&T program called Call Protect and will start rolling out for new AT&T Mobility consumer lines will come with the anti-robocall service. Millions of existing AT&T customers also will have it automatically added to their accounts over the coming months.

Other telecom companies also said they have made progress in relation to the FCC order but Commissioner Sparks’ message tells us that they are not doing the best that they can.

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