Cost of Call Blocking Services Reviewed in FCC Oversight Hearing
Senate Commerce Committee members question framework for ensuring call blocking services approved by FCC are at no cost to consumers.
6/12/2019 1:00 PM
The Senate Commerce Committee met for its Federal Communications Commission Oversight hearing on June 12, focusing in part on enforcing illegal robocalls and the cost to consumers—also addressed in a letter from ACA International.
Specifically, ACA’s letter to Chairman Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., urges Congress to consider two issues as it conducts its oversight of the FCC:
- The FCC's overbroad inclusion of legitimate business calls in efforts to target bad actors making robocalls in its recent Declaratory Ruling.
- The FCC's failure to act on questions remanded to it from the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals more than a year ago concerning the Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
Committee members noted the Telephone Robocall Abuse Criminal Enforcement and Deterrence Act (TRACED Act) approved in the Senate 97-1 in May would solidify the FCC's authority to mitigate and enforce rules around illegal robocalls.
However, the approved Declaratory Ruling from the FCC does not address this directive in the Senate’s accompanying report to the TRACED Act.
“Despite the FCC's well-intentioned efforts to target these bad actors, the Declaratory Ruling is facially overbroad by encouraging default blocking, rather than giving consumers the choice to opt in,” said ACA CEO Mark Neeb, noting the Declaratory Ruling does not fully address that. In fact, not all robocalls are illegal or unwanted, as a majority of the callers using automated calls are legitimate businesses and valid robocalls are of benefit to consumers as described in the TRACED Act report directive.
“As Congress’s Senate report adds, ‘The process established by the FCC should require voice service providers to unblock improperly blocked calls in as timely and efficient a manner as reasonable,’” Neeb said.
In a vote June 6, the FCC unanimously approved the ruling with Chairman Ajit Pai and Commissioners Brendan Carr and Geoffrey Starks voting in favor of the full measure while Commissioners Michael O’Rielly and Jessica Rosenworcel approved it in part and dissented in part.
“The good news is that [the Declaratory Ruling] authorized phone companies to deploy technology to block robocalls across the network, unless a consumer opts out,” Rosenworcel said during the June 12 hearing. “The bad news is that nothing in this decision prevents carriers from charging consumers for this blocking technology to stop robocalls. I think robocall solutions should be free to consumers. It’s disappointing that the FCC couldn’t simply do what consumers want most—stop robocalls and do it for free.”
Members of the committee also stressed the service should be free and questioned why that requirement is not in the FCC's Declaratory Ruling.
“The rule that was proposed enables the carriers to charge consumers,” said U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. “This service should be free.”
Pai said it is the “expectation” for the robocall blocking services to be free and, based on a proposal from Commissioner Starks, the Declaratory Ruling incorporates regulatory steps to implement if phone carriers charge for the service.
“We would have notice and comment issues we would have to go through if we were going to regulate the rates for that particular service,” Pai said. "It was important to me to set the legal foundation for this straight now.”
Following the June 6 vote on the Declaratory Ruling, Starks sent letters to leaders of 14 major phone carriers “seeking details about how and when they plan to roll out default call blocking and whether they intend to charge consumers for these services,” according to a FCC news release.
“We set forth and I voted for a mechanism to institute a rulemaking should [we] understand that carriers are not offering this for free,” Starks said during the Senate Commerce Committee hearing. “We are specifically going to have carriers report to us whether it’s being offered for free. If it’s not, we’ll institute a rulemaking.”
In the weeks leading up to the FCC’s vote on the Declaratory Ruling, ACA and other trade groups met with the FCC several times and filed ex partes, urging it to delay its vote and seek public comment and make changes to the ruling.
“While ACA International recognizes that illegal robocalls are a serious problem and supports efforts to combat them, we still fear that the ruling will cause consumers to miss important business and informational calls,” Neeb said. “While the final version, as opposed to the draft version, provides some acknowledgement of the need for redress for erroneously blocked calls, there is still some concern about whether the FCC provided sufficient parameters around the unblocking of legitimate calls, how and in what timeframe callers should be notified, and sufficient recognition of the harm blocking legitimate business calls could cause for consumers.”
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