Experts Debate Whether Originating or Terminating Providers Hold Robocall Responsibility

Despite the FCC’s recent expansion of STIR/SHAKEN, some panelists called the framework ineffective.

Experts Debate Whether Originating or Terminating Providers Hold Robocall Responsibility
Photo by Terry Ballard

WASHINGTON, March 22, 2023 — The current industry and regulatory fight against illegal robocall traffic is failing to make a meaningful dent in the problem, but there is not yet consensus about a better approach, according to experts at a Broadband Breakfast Live Online event on Wednesday.

“Robocalls have completely undermined the value of the U.S. telephone system,” said Margot Saunders, senior attorney at the National Consumer Law Center. “The system is losing value and that’s hurting all of us — especially businesses and health professionals who are trying to reach people in health emergencies.”

In addition to being an annoyance, fraudulent robocalls are expected to cost mobile subscribers more than $58 billion in 2023 alone, Saunders added.

The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to expand the STIR/SHAKEN robocall regime to include providers that receive and deliver phone traffic. Previously, the rules only applied to voice service providers that originate and terminate calls.

“This was a gap in our rules, a way to let junk calls sneak into our networks and reach unassuming consumers,” FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement. “No more. Today we close this loophole and require intermediate providers… to use STIR/SHAKEN. We also insist that they, along with all other providers, register in our Robocall Mitigation Database.”

Downstream carriers will be prohibited from accepting calls from intermediate providers not listed in the database, Rosenworcel added.

“In my almost 38 years of practice, I have never seen the FCC actually produce more rules and regulations around a single issue in a shorter time as they have with robocalling,” said Glenn Richards, partner at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, at the Broadband Breakfast event.

Panelists disagree about efficacy of STIR/SHAKEN

Despite the FCC’s efforts, some of the initiatives intended to combat robocalling have resulted in more harm than good, claimed Jonathan Marashlian, managing partner at The CommLaw Group.

“STIR/SHAKEN is not the answer,” Marashlian said. “Maybe it was a very small incremental step in a positive direction, but there are so many holes in the framework from just a sheer technological standpoint.”

Vonage Founder Jeff Pulver agreed that STIR/SHAKEN has proven ineffective. “We’re living in an era where we should be able to communicate more, not less,” he said. “Yet the shenanigans that have been going on have actually dramatically reduced call completion rates.”

But other panelists were more optimistic. Richards argued that it was too early to deem STIR/SHAKEN a failure, noting that some problems — such as traffic originating from overseas call centers — are not entirely within the FCC’s control.

“STIR/SHAKEN is by no means a failure — it is an essential element of the full response needed… but it is only one,” Saunders said. “If you have a panoply of problems and you close the door against one of them and leave the other door open, you haven’t solved the problem because all the bad players will simply come in through the other door.”

The fact that VoIP providers are allowed to rent phone numbers to telemarketers and scammers “completely undermines the whole purpose of STIR/SHAKEN,” Saunders added.

Which party is responsible for blocking robocall traffic?

In determining responsibility for bad traffic, Saunders drew an analogy to a grocery story that repeatedly sold spoiled milk from a variety of different brands. “The authorities would go down and say, ‘Grocery store, if you can’t stop selling bad milk because you can’t control your suppliers, we’re going to shut you down,’” she said. “In the end, it’s the terminating providers’ job, we think, to police the providers from whom they accept calls.”

Richards took a different approach. “I think the obligation really belongs to the originating service provider to taste the milk before they send the call,” he said. “There’s probably a relatively small number of originating service providers that are responsible for a large number of the illegal fraudulent traffic that is getting into the United States… and frankly, I think it’s important that those parties probably are the ones that are subject to enforcement.”

While Saunders agreed that the originating providers would ideally be held liable, she noted that “this problem has been going on for years and we’ve not been able to catch them.” Holding the terminating partners accountable, she said, would provide a more effective and pragmatic solution.

Pulver proposed a system where the caller party would pay and the destination party would set the price for call completion. In addition, he said, consumers should be empowered with tools such as “personal communication firewalls” that would allow individuals to block all unrecognized traffic.

Richards also promoted consumer choice, but noted that “not all consumers have that same technical capability — and particularly older consumers, who are the targets of a lot of these nefarious practices — so having the carriers intervene make some sense.”

Our Broadband Breakfast Live Online events take place on Wednesday at 12 Noon ET. Watch the event on Broadband Breakfast, or REGISTER HERE to join the conversation.

Wednesday, March 22, 2023, 12 Noon ET – Robocalls, STIR/SHAKEN and the Future of Voice Telephony

The Federal Communications Commission calls the fight against illegal robocall traffic its “top consumer protection priority.” The agency’s March 16 meeting heard discussion of several proposed rules to strengthen STIR/SHAKEN, from requiring intermediate providers to authenticate certain calls to adopting more robust enforcement tools. Required by the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act of 2019, has the FCC succeeded in making the STIR/SHAKEN framework work? Or is voice telephony still at the mercy of robocallers?

  • Margot Saunders, Senior Attorney, National Consumer Law Center
  • Jeff Pulver, Founder, Vonage
  • Glenn Richards, Partner, Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP
  • Jonathan Marashlian, Managing Partner, The CommLaw Group
  • Drew Clark (moderator), Editor and Publisher, Broadband Breakfast

Panelist resources

Margot Saunders is currently a senior staff attorney with the National Consumer Law Center (NCLC) after serving as managing attorney of NCLC’s Washington, D.C. office from 1991 to 2005. Margot has testified before Congress more than two dozen times regarding a wide range of consumer law issues, including predatory mortgage lending, high cost small loans, payments law, electronic commerce, protecting benefits in bank accounts, privacy issues, and robocalls. She was the lead advocate on the passage of the Home Ownership and Equity Protection Act, the development of the Treasury Rule protecting exempt benefits, and many other initiatives.

Jeff Pulver is a tech industry icon, a pioneer in the field of Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), and a leading advocate for internet freedom. In the late 1990s, Pulver saw the potential for VoIP to revolutionize the way we communicate and founded the company Vonage, one of the first VoIP service providers. As VoIP began to gain traction, Pulver faced resistance from traditional telephone companies and regulators. In 2003, he took on the establishment and petitioned the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In 2004 the FCC issued the “Pulver Order”  which ensured that VoIP services would not be subject to traditional telephone regulation. This decision paved the way for the widespread adoption of VoIP and transformed the way we communicate.

Glenn Richards is Pillsbury’s Communications Practice Group Leader. Based in Washington, DC, he is a recognized authority on IP communications regulations and telecommunications policies and issues. Glenn represents VoIP and cloud communications service providers; satellite, wireless, long-distance and competitive local exchange carriers; broadcasters; equipment manufacturers; trade associations and others in transactional matters and before the FCC and state public utilities commissions. A partner in the firm’s Global Sourcing practice, Glenn also negotiates global telecommunications service contracts for large corporations.

Jonathan Marashlian is experienced in nearly all aspects of federal and state communications law and regulation. He has represented clients of all shapes and sizes and from all corners of the Communications/VoIP, Broadband, IoT and Information Technology industries for over 25 years. As Managing Partner of The CommLaw Group, Mr. Marashlian is responsible for coordinating and managing attorneys and professional staff and guiding the firm’s clients through the maze of federal, state and international regulatory, communications tax, and other compliance requirements.

Drew Clark (moderator) is CEO of Breakfast Media LLC. He has led the Broadband Breakfast community since 2008. An early proponent of better broadband, better lives, he initially founded the Broadband Census crowdsourcing campaign for broadband data. As Editor and Publisher, Clark presides over the leading media company advocating for higher-capacity internet everywhere through topical, timely and intelligent coverage. Clark also served as head of the Partnership for a Connected Illinois, a state broadband initiative.

Graphic from Adobe Stock used with permission

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