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Robocall Anger Will Force Calling Companies to Adjust Expectations, Says FCC Enforcement Bureau

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WASHINGTON, June 17, 2019 — Companies whose legally-placed robocalls are blocked under the June 6 order of the Federal Communications Commission may need to adjust their perception of consumer expectations, a top Enforcement Bureau chief at the Federal Communications Commission said last week.

Indeed, the popular backlash against robocalls is forcing all facets of the telecommunications industry to adjust their business model and consider technologies that are more politically palatable, like ringless voice-mail.

Kristi Thompson, chief of the FCC Enforcement Bureau’s Telecommunications Consumers Division, made her pointed suggestion – about some industry officials who engage in robocalling needing to adjust their expectations – at a June 10 event of the Federal Communications Bar Association.

Also at that event, Deputy Bureau Chief Mark Stone said the agency is moving quickly to enhance and update the reassigned numbers database. Doing so will allow legitimate telemarketers to scrub their lists and remain in compliance with the Telephone Consumer Protection Act of 1991.

Not all robocalls are illegal, said Patrick Halley, senior vice president of the industry group US Telecom. Emphasizing the intent standard, he said many robocalls are actually useful. The goal, he said, is to empower customers to be able to only receive the calls that they want.

Rebecca Thompson, the head of government affairs at Twilio, illustrated several cases of legitimate spoofing. These include protecting Uber riders’ numbers, womens’ shelters and crisis counseling lines preserving safety and privacy. She also pointed out cases of legitimate robocalls, including notifications from schools or emergency providers, that could potentially be blocked by analytics companies because they would match targeted call patterns.

Twilio carefully monitors the use of the platform and wants to work with providers to determine the difference between wanted and unwanted calls, said Twilio’s Thompson, although she warned that the standard of an “unwanted” robocall is a slippery slope.

Stone replied that the FCC is not interested in over-blocking, and that the agency has begun to create a process for those who feel they have been unfairly blocked. Moreover, similar technologies are already being used on an opt-in basis, and are working “fairly well,” he said.

He added that there are tools to show the consumer exactly what calls have been blocked, and that informed opt-out is still an option.

Some industry officials are applauding an apparent allowance for a so-called “informed opt-out” standard when it comes to blocking robocalls.

In a statement released Monday, ACA Connects – an association of smaller cable operators – issued a statement praising the opt-out approach: The June 6 “ruling gives assurance to ACA Connects members and other providers that they can do more to help their customers block malicious robocalls, while also preserving the right of any individual customer to make an informed choice to receive any and all incoming calls,” said ACA CEO Matt Polka. Those consumers who are less familiar with and slower to adopt new technologies are particularly likely to benefit from blocking tools made available on an opt-out basis, as today’s ruling contemplates.”

At another forum on the same topic hosted by US Telecom on Tuesday, Youmail CEO Alex Quilici said that the option of sending some calls straight to voicemail could help prevent unnecessary blocking, especially for numbers that are in use by big companies such as banks but also are frequently used by scammers.

Allowing ringless voicemail provides a middle ground between letting the call ring and blocking it at the network level.

AT&T Vice President Linda Vandeloop and Verizon Associate General Counsel Chris Oatway both described measures that the major voice service providers are taking to allow individuals or businesses to quickly report erroneously blocked calls.

There is still a possibility that legal calls could be blocked, said Oatway, but the industry is in the process of figuring out the best practices.

Speaking at the US Telecom event, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., discussed the TRACED Act, emphasizing bipartisan support for action against robocalls.

Markey presented a three step “recipe for success”: Authentication (requiring carriers to verify all calls), blocking (requiring carriers to block all unverified calls), and enforcement (increasing the window to pursue penalties from one year to three years). He emphasized the overwhelming bipartisan and bicameral support for these measures.

(Image from KSLTV.)

FCC

Former Commissioners Commend FCC in Absence of Fifth Commissioner

But there’s concern a Senate vote on a fifth FCC commissioner will not happen before midterms.

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Screenshot of Former FCC Chairman Richard Wiley

WASHINGTON, July 25, 2022 – Former chairs of the Federal Communications Commission commended the current FCC administration at a symposium on Wednesday for working together on important issues with a 2-2 party split, but expressed increasing uncertainty about the fate of a fifth commissioner.

The Senate vote to confirm Gigi Sohn, a Democrat and net neutrality advocate, has stalled for months. And former FCC commissioners were wary of her prospects before the midterm elections in November. Some Republican critics are concerned that Sohn, nominated by President Joe Biden in October, won’t be able to remain non-partisan on the issues she would encounter as a commissioner.

“Confirmation is still possible, but with the extended August recess and looming midterm election, there aren’t a lot of legislative days to get the job done,” said former FCC Chair Richard Wiley. With each passing day, the confirmation becomes more difficult, agreed panelists, as the Senate could flip to a Republican-controlled chamber come November.

In the meantime, the former commissioners praised the efforts of the current staff. “A lot of credit should go to the Chairwoman [Jessica] Rosenworcel and indeed to all the commissioners for maintaining a robust agenda over the last year and half and really getting decisions made,” said Wiley. “Two Democrats, two Republicans have worked together to serve the public interest.”

William Kennard added that, “this is an energetic commission, they want to get things done.”

Some initiatives that have received unanimous FCC votes include spectrum-sharing initiatives and robocall enforcement.

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FCC

FCC Adopts Spectrum-Sharing Incentives, Proposal on Call Traffic Arbitrage

The agency voted to incentivize the sharing of underutilized spectrum to increase connectivity in the nation.

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Photo of Nathan Simington, Brendan Carr, Jessica Rosenworcel of FCC (left to right)

WASHINGTON, July 14, 2022 – The Federal Communications Commission voted at its July open meeting Thursday to adopt spectrum-sharing incentives and to crack down on the practice of driving up revenue from call traffic inflation.

The commission voted to adopt a program that will build incentives for larger spectrum holders to make underutilized spectrum available to smaller carriers, tribal nations and entities serving rural areas. The program, called the Enhanced Competition Incentive Program, will have incentives including longer license terms, extensions on buildout obligations, and more flexible construction requirements.

The commission is also seeking comment on whether to expand the program eligibility to non-common carriers serving non-rural areas.

“I’m excited to see the new deployments this program will foster,” said FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel. “I think it will help expand wireless deployment in rural and tribal communities… to make sure we reach 100 percent of us with high-speed service.”

Experts have advocated for more carve-outs for unlicensed spectrum to tackle the growing demand for connections and relieve congestion on existing frequencies. The Rural Wireless Association applauded the FCC Thursday on the vote, saying it believes that program can “encourage the necessary transactions that can expand telecommunications and broadband service in rural America.”

Cracking down on call traffic arbitrage

The commission also proposed rules to address the practice of telephone companies inflating traffic to generate more revenue, which raises costs for long-distance carriers.

Intercarrier compensation is the system of regulated payments that sees carriers compensate each other for cross-carrier call traffic. Some companies, however, continue to take advantage of the system by inflating traffic to extract additional revenues, the FCC identified. As a result, the FCC proposes to adopt monitoring rules to identify illegal arbitrage practices.

“This rulemaking is designed to shut down the loopholes these companies are exploiting,” said Rosenworcel. It would require providers to tally and report call traffic volumes to the FCC to verify its compliance with access stimulation rules, which were adopted in 2019 to clarify financial responsibility for calls.

Other actions

The FCC also proposed a $116 million fine against ChariTel Inc. for a robocall scheme that made nearly 10 million robocalls to toll-free numbers, which then generated revenue for the company from payments by the toll-free service provider.

FCC commissioners further voted to open an inquiry to evaluate how the Lifeline and Affordable Connectivity Program can be modified to support the connectivity needs of domestic abuse survivors.

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FCC

FCC Commissioner Supports Rural Telco Efforts to Implement ‘Rip and Replace’

In remarks at the Rural Wireless Association event on Wednesday, Commissioner Geoffrey Starks reaffirmed the FCC’s goals.

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Photo of Carri Bennet, general counsel of the Rural Wireless Association, leading a discussion at the summit on Wednesday by Drew Clark

PARK CITY, Utah, June 30, 2022 – Federal Communications Commissioner Geoffrey Starks acknowledged the agency’s goal of obtaining secure broadband networks at an event of the Rural Wireless Association on Wednesday.

“We must ensure that our broadband networks are secure,” Starks said in keynote address at the Rural Wireless Infrastructure Summit here, delivered via Zoom. “This is evident in the constant barrage of attacks of American networks from hostile state and non-state actors.”

Starks continued, “insecure networks, by definition, can’t provide the stable, reliable, always on communications we need. Especially during emergencies… Broadband must be secure for the full benefits of broadband to be achieved.”

The issue of ridding American telecommunications networks of equipment manufactured in China was a constant theme during the conference.

In addition to Starks’ presentation, several sessions addressed the dilemma faced by telecommunications carriers, particular rural ones, that had in the past invested heavily in lower-cost equipment from Huawei, a leading Chinese manufacturer.

As the political winds have changed on the topic over the past three years, Congress has allocated funds for a “rip and replace” program. The FCC is expected to announce the providers that will receive nearly $2 billion as part of the program by July 15.

But some fear that number could be more than $4 billion short of needed funds.

“The funds available will cover only a very small portion” of the costs to replace Huawei with non-Chinese manufacturers, said Carri Bennet, general counsel of the Rural Wireless Association.

Potential new requirements imposed on telecom providers

The commission recently sought comment on whether it should require carriers that receive high-cost support to have include baseline cyber security and supply chain risk management plans.

If these plans are included in requirements, Starks said that American communication networks would be protected from bad actors. Moreover, they are consistent with requirements already included in the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Starks thanked the RWA for its activity and advocacy in the “rip and replace” proceedings, officially dubbed the Secure and Trusted Communications Network Reimbursement Program.

“The threat is real,” called Starks. “Companies that are deemed by the federal government to be a threat to the United States and its people can not have free reign in data centers featuring some of the most sensitive data of Americans.”

This comes only days after Commissioner Brendan Carr called for Apple and Google to remove Beijing-based popular video-sharing application, TikTok, from their app stores in response to the apps’ obligation to comply with the Peoples Republic of China’s surveillance demands.

Broadband Breakfast Editor and Publisher Drew Clark contributed to this report.

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