FCC Pretends To Hold Carrier Feet To The Fire On Robocalls

Despite numerous government initiatives and countless promises from the telecom sector, our national robocall hell continues. Robocalls from telemarketers and scammers continue to be the subject the FCC receives the most complaints about, and recent data from the Robocall Index indicates that the problem is only getting worse. Consumers are routinely hammered by mortgage interest rate scams, credit card scams, student loan scams, business loan scams, and IRS scams. In September, group data showed that roughly 4.4 billion robocalls were placed to consumers at a rate of 147 million per day. The trend is not subtle:

Usually, you’ll see the FCC crack down hard on small robocall scammers if the case is a slam dunk. But you’ll never really see the agency hold giant carriers accountable for their longstanding apathy, blame shifting, and tap dancing that they have engaged in in terms of quickly adopting modern technical solutions to the problem.

This week, FCC boss Ajit Pai took a break from neutering popular consumer protections to send a letter to 13 companies including AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Google, demanding they all do more to help protect consumers from robocalls. In a separate statement (pdf), Pai declared that if things don’t start improving by next year, he’ll maybe actually do something about it:

“Combatting (sic) illegal robocalls is our top consumer priority at the FCC. That’s why we need call authentication to become a reality—it’s the best way to ensure that consumers can answer their phones with confidence. By this time next year, I expect that consumers will begin to see this on their phones…If it does not appear that this system is on track to get up and running next year, then we will take action to make sure that it does.”

Pai’s letter resulted in numerous outlets stating that carriers must finally move quickly on the scourge of robocalls, “or else.” Some outlets took the FCC’s letter to mean that carriers absolutely had to solve robocalls by next year or something ambiguously serious would happen to them.

But that’s not likely to be the case. Giant carriers have, if you haven’t noticed, found the Trump FCC to be a mindless rubber stamp for every single one of their wishes, no matter how preposterous. Surely they’re terrified that Pai may actually send them some additional snarky letters. After all, AT&T spent years trying to blame the FCC for its own failure to do more on this front, with zero real repercussions for the behavior (aside from being appointed lead on a “strike force” a few years back that pretty clearly hasn’t addressed the problem).

Like past FCCs under opposing parties, the agency loves to do this thing where it “demands” carriers do something they already planned to do. In this case, it’s the adoption of a new SHAKEN/STIR call authentication technology to hinder the use of spoofed numbers, which are all but impossible to police. Outside of a few holdouts (CenturyLink, Frontier), most of the carriers Pai sent letters to this week are already engaged in trials of this new technology, and have publicly stated they’ll be launching the tech in early 2019.

In short, Pai is “demanding” that carriers adopt technology he knows they already planned to adopt. But his failure to impose a hard deadline (unlike, say, Canada), and his legacy so far of being aggressively cozy with the companies he’s supposed to hold accountable, means that it’s pretty unlikely that companies that fail to keep pace on SHAKEN/STIR deployments will actually see much in the way of punishment. After all, wasn’t letting giant, lumbering telecom monopolies pretty much do whatever they want supposed to be a mystical panacea for the ills of the telecom sector?

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