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FCC passes measure urging carriers to block robocalls by default

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The FCC voted at its open meeting this week to adopt an anti-robocall measure, but it may or may not lead to any abatement of this maddening practice — and it might not be free, either. That said, it’s a start toward addressing a problem that’s far from simple and enormously irritating to consumers.

The last two years have seen the robocall problem grow and grow, and although there are steps you can take right now to improve things, they may not totally eliminate the issue or perhaps won’t be available on your plan or carrier.

How to stop robocalls spamming your phone

Under fire for not acting quickly enough in the face of a nationwide epidemic of scam calls, the FCC has taken action about as fast as a federal regulator can be expected to, and there are two main parts to its plan to fight robocalls, one of which was approved today at the Commission’s open meeting.

The first item was proposed formally last month by Chairman Ajit Pai, and although it amounts to little more than nudging carriers, it could be helpful.

Carriers have the ability to apply whatever tools they have to detect and block robocalls before they even reach users’ phones. But it’s possible, if unlikely, that a user may prefer not to have that service active. And carriers have complained that they are afraid blocking calls by default may in fact be prohibited by existing FCC regulations.

The FCC has said before that this is not the case and that carriers should go ahead and opt everyone into these blocking services (one can always opt out), but carriers have balked. The rulemaking approved basically just makes it crystal clear that carriers are permitted, and indeed encouraged, to opt consumers into call-blocking schemes.

That’s good, but to be clear, Wednesday’s resolution does not require carriers to do anything, nor does it prohibit carriers from charging for such a service — as indeed Sprint, AT&T, and Verizon already do in some form or another. (TechCrunch is owned by Verizon Media, but this does not affect our coverage.)

BREAKING: The @FCC votes to authorize call blocking to help stop #robocalls. That’s good news. Now the bad news: it refuses to prevent new consumer charges and fees to block these awful calls. That’s not right. We should stop robocalls and do it for FREE.https://t.co/6bay6cnujN

— Jessica Rosenworcel (@JRosenworcel) June 6, 2019

Commissioner Starks noted in his approving statement that the FCC will be watching the implementation of this policy carefully for the possibility of abuse by carriers.

At my request, the item [i.e. his addition to the proposal] will give us critical feedback on how our tools are performing. It will now study the availability of call blocking solutions; the fees charged, if any, for these services; the effectiveness of various categories of call blocking tools; and an assessment of the number of subscribers availing themselves of available call blocking tools.

A second rule is still gestating, existing right now more or less only as a threat from the FCC should carriers fail to step up their game. The industry has put together a sort of universal caller ID system called STIR/SHAKEN (Secure Telephony Identity Revisited / Secure Handling of Asserted information using toKENs), but has been slow to roll it out. Pai said late last year that if carriers didn’t put it in place by the end of 2019, the FCC would be forced to take regulatory action.

Why the Commission didn’t simply take regulatory action in the first place is a valid question, and one some Commissioners and others have asked. Be that as it may, the threat is there and seems to have spurred carriers to action. There have been tests, but as yet no carrier has rolled out a working anti-robocall system based on STIR/SHAKEN.

Pai has said regarding these systems that “we [i.e. the FCC] do not anticipate that there would be costs passed on to the consumer,” and it does seem unlikely that your carrier will opt you into a call-blocking scheme that costs you money. But never underestimate the underhandedness and avarice of a telecommunications company. I would not be surprised if new subscribers get this added as a line item or something; watch your bills carefully.

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