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Phone companies must adopt robocall-blocking tech by year end: FCC

Ethan Wolff-Mann
Senior Writer

The FCC has voted to give phone companies permission to block obvious robocalls before they reach phones.

The new rules, announced last month, were approved by the commission Thursday, give safe harbor to phone companies to block the calls, so long as they have “reasonable call analytics” showing that a robocall is happening and that consumers are told what’s going on — and can opt out if they so choose. USTelecom, a large trade group for the phone companies, expressed approval.

Today many phone companies provide call-blocking services, but the services have been opt-in for the most part, so customers who did not take action would still get robocalls, though certain calls could be blocked.

The rules also allow carriers to offer their customers white lists — a limited list of numbers that are permitted to go through, such as a person’s list of contacts on their phone.

Getty Images

Just because the FCC has passed this does not mean the calls will stop, however. The industry’s solution – authentication technology called STIR/SHAKEN that verifies that calls come from real caller ID instead of spoofed or faked caller ID – isn’t set to go into widespread effect until 2020, though companies are testing it and using it now. Until then, phone companies will have to use other means of identifying unwanted calls.

Still, in a speech at the FCC’s open commission meeting, FCC Chair Ajit Pai said his expectation is that large voice-providers adopt the technology by the end of the year — or else.

“I’ve been pleased by the progress that industry has made and am optimistic that the end-of-the year deadline will be met,” said Pai. “But in case it isn’t, the FCC will not hesitate to take regulatory action.”

Most people are happy, but not everyone

According to Pai, “If there is one thing in our country right now that unites Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, vegetarians and carnivores, Ohio State and Michigan fans, it is that they are sick and tired of being bombarded by unwanted robocalls.”

Ajit Pai, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, testifies as the House Energy and Commerce Committee holds an oversight hearing of the FCC, on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, May 15, 2019. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Not everyone is happy with the new rule, however.

The FCC commissioners all assented at least partially to the rule, but Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Mike O’Rielly dissented in part, though on different grounds.

“The @FCC votes to authorize call blocking to help stop #robocalls,” she tweeted. “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.”

For Commissioner O’Rielly and parts of the business community, the concern is the vagueness of “unwanted” as a category. Banks and credit unions, for instance, disapprove as they use robocalls as well.

“Telecommunications firms should not be allowed to decide for consumers which calls – including calls related to credit card fraud or low account balances – are blocked without recourse,” the Consumer Bankers Association said in a press release.

Pai, generally considered a friend of the business community, explained his thinking in a speech, listing consumer complaints, including one begging him “not to side with the businesses that want to harass our fellow citizens.”

“I recognize that not everyone is a fan of our approach. Some opponents themselves are subjecting consumers to a torrent of unwanted robocalls,” said Pai. “My message to them is simple: The FCC will stand with American consumers, not with those who are badgering them with unwanted robocalls.”

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Ethan Wolff-Mann is a writer at Yahoo Finance focusing on consumer issues, personal finance, retail, airlines, and more. Follow him on Twitter @ewolffmann.

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