Last month, after FCC Chair Tom Wheeler called on the telecom industry to finally do something about the nuisance of pre-recorded, auto-dialed robocalls, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson agreed to head up a joint private-public Robocall Strike Force tasked with actually doing something about these calls. Today, this elite squad of telephonic titans is meeting for the first time.
The Strike Force has been given a deadline of 60 days (Oct. 19) to lay down a clearer path toward a world with fewer automated calls that aren’t just obnoxious, but are often illegal.
“Americans are fed up,” began Wheeler. “Robocalls are a scourge. It’s the number one complaint that we hear from consumers on a daily basis,” with more than 200,000 gripes being filed with the FCC each year — and that’s just from the very small number of people who take the time to file a complaint.
“Americans have a right to be fed up,” continued the Chair. “It’s an invasion of privacy, rife with fraud and identity theft… The bad guys are beating the good guys with technology.”
While phone companies could undoubtedly do more to block robocalls or give their customers more tools for eliminating these calls, Wheeler is quick to point out that this is a “community problem” affecting the entire telecom and broadband industries.
Online phone services don’t just allow for robocall scammers to blast out a seemingly endless barrage of prerecorded calls, they allow the scammers to cheaply place these calls from foreign countries.
These robocallers, explained Wheeler, rely on the fact that existing phone networks “aren’t ready to deal with them… The profit motive has driven bad guys to a level of technological innovation that exploits consumers by exploiting networks and equipment.”
This is why the Strike Force, which will meet at least twice a week for the next two months, includes representatives from phone service and broadband providers (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon), manufacturers (Apple, Nokia, Samsung), and network bandwidth providers like Level 3 Communications.
“This has to be multi-carrier, cross-carrier, and a community solution,” urged Wheeler.
Stephenson, whose record on robocalls is far from perfect, concurred.
“This gonna require more than individual company initiatives,” acknowledged the CEO. “And it’s going to have to go beyond one-off blocking applications to address this issue.”
He admitted that the industry has thus far taken a “piecemeal” approach to robocalls and “we’ve have very limited success.”
Part of the problem, cautioned Stephenson, is that while everyone hates robocalls, not all of them are against the law.
“We have calls that are perfectly legal that are not wanted, like telemarketers and public opinion surveys,” he explained before jumping to the other end of the spectrum where you have “millions of calls that are patently illegal, and they’re violating the Do Not Call registry, or worse they’re trying to steal identities or money… shutting down the bad guys is a very important step.”
By the end of the 60 days, the Strike Force should have achieved a number of goals, including some sort of solution on call-authentication standards for VoIP (cable) phone calls, meaning the carrier will have a reasonable degree of certainty that it knows where the call is coming from and going to.
The Strike Force must also discuss solutions for expediting the deployment of third-party call filters that can be used either by consumers or by the phone companies. “Let’s give folks the opportunity to get creative” about blocking robocalls, said Wheeler.
The FCC also expects the Strike Force to develop cross-carrier solutions, like a “Do No Originate” list that would identify likely sources of repeat robocalls and block those calls before they ever get to the customer.
Finally, the Strike Force needs to tell the FCC what the Commission needs to do to help industry achieve these goals.
What Wheeler doesn’t want is for the industry to be paralyzed by the possibility that it won’t reach a perfect solution right away.
“The nature of software is start and continually improve,” he explained. “Let’s not sit around and wait for the ultimate solution. Let’s start solving the issues immediately, and let’s improve it tomorrow, and make it even better the day after tomorrow.”
Tim Marvin, our colleague at Consumers Union who heads up the End Robocalls campaign called the plan unveiled at today’s meeting an important initial victory for consumers and an indicator that the industry is taking serious steps to address the issue.
“Consumers are sick and tired of robocalls and have made it clear that they expect the phone companies to take action,” said Marvin. “We’ll be monitoring the work of the Strike Force closely in the next 60 days to make sure they deliver on these promises.”
However, Marvin noted that AT&T’s Stephenson did not directly address Wheeler’s previously raised concerns about the need for solutions for traditional landlines, and the need for fast publication of applicable standards.
“It’s critical that the Strike Force’s solutions address the needs of the most vulnerable consumers who still use landlines,” he explains, “and that the move forward towards standards be on the same timeline as the report. Adoption of standards should not and cannot be a waiting game.”
Editor's Note: This article originally appeared on Consumerist.