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Regulators, industry debate pricing caller protections amid rise of robocalls

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Regulators, industry debate pricing caller protections amid rise of robocalls

A rising tide of illegal robocalls has telecom operators and U.S. regulators debating how far companies should go to block unwanted calls and whether consumers should be paying for these services.

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission spent the last 18 months working with operators and soliciting feedback on various efforts to block unwanted and fraudulent calls. While there is already widespread support for an industry-led framework that would validate calls in the U.S. and display information about the level of trust the network has in the call, recent comments on the FCC's efforts suggest opinions vary as to whether operators should go beyond enhanced caller ID services to offering broader call-blocking features, and if so, at what price.

In late 2017, the FCC unanimously adopted an order allowing companies to block calls from telephone numbers that do not or cannot make outgoing calls. However, that measure failed to address the rising incidence of spoofing, where bad actors temporarily hijack a legitimate phone number in order to trick consumers into answering their call. The industry's new STIR/SHAKEN caller ID framework, developed with support from the FCC, aims to address spoofing by giving operators a mechanism to gauge the legitimacy of a calling party's number. "STIR," which stands for Secure Telephone Identity Revisited, offers a series of protocols that operators may use to implement a new token-based caller ID standard, "SHAKEN."

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Flagged scam calls on a smart phone
Source: Associated Press

"I don't know that we're ever going to be able to identify all calls that have fraudulent content and block them. But I think what the industry and technologists are close to is a good protocol for verifying caller ID numbers and putting some integrity back into caller ID so consumers can make better choices about which calls to answer and which to ignore," said Ian Barlow, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission's Do Not Call program coordinator, in an interview.

Based on an analysis of more than 50 billion calls, First Orion Corp., a provider of call and data transparency technology for T-Mobile US Inc. and other operators, forecast that nearly half of all calls to mobile phones will be fraudulent in 2019, up from 29.2% in 2018. In September, the robocall-blocking service provider YouMail Inc. said U.S. consumers received a total of 4.2 billion robocalls in August, setting a new monthly record. For the first eight months of 2018, robocalls were up 33.2% year over year, totaling 28.5 billion calls, according to YouMail.

"Robocalls are out of control," Maureen Mahoney, a policy analyst for the Consumer Reports advocacy division Consumers Union, said in an interview.

Mahoney supports the STIR/SHAKEN caller ID framework and would like to see the FCC require operators to implement it. "So far, the FCC has let the industry take the lead, and I think it's important the FCC ensures [the STIR/SHAKEN caller ID framework] is implemented quickly and effectively," she said.

Mahoney noted that Canadian regulators will require operators implement the framework by March 2019. "There is no reason the FCC shouldn't follow their lead," she said.

The FCC's North American Numbering Council, a group advising the FCC on the implementation of STIR/SHAKEN, has thus far advocated for "incentivized participation" in the framework. In comments submitted to the FCC by an Oct. 7 proceeding deadline, the telecommunications trade group USTelecom said the commission "should avoid codifying any particular measures for voice providers."

Verizon Communications Inc., AT&T Inc. and T-Mobile have committed to starting implementation of STIR/SHAKEN by the end of 2018 or early 2019. A Sprint Corp. representative said the company plans to begin testing in 2019.

Another question is whether the FCC should provide operators with legal protection in the event of unintended blocking or misidentification of suspected scammers. The North American Numbering Council has pushed for such a provision, as has USTelecom, but the Voice on the Net Coalition, which advocates on behalf of voice over IP services, opposes the idea, arguing in a recent FCC filing it could lead to overly broad call-blocking techniques.

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Pricing robocall protection is another point of contention. Currently, AT&T offers a free mobile app dubbed "AT&T Call Protect" that detects and blocks calls from likely fraudsters. T-Mobile, through its work with First Orion, has built Scam ID protections directly into its network to identify likely scam calls and alerts users. Additionally, T-Mobile users can opt into Scam Block, where all calls from likely scammers are terminated before reaching a user's phone.

AT&T and T-Mobile also offer premium blocking apps that customers can pay for by adding the subscription price onto their monthly cell phone bills.

Other operators have their own call-blocking services, but consumers must pay for them. Verizon's Caller Name ID service costs $2.99 per month per line, in line with a premium caller ID service from Sprint. United States Cellular Corp. offers the mobile app Call Guardian for $3.99 a month.

"We think it's really important that consumers have free anti-robocall tools because consumers already pay a lot for cell service and robocalls interfere with the quality of the phone service, blocking incoming and outgoing calls," said Consumers Union's Mahoney.

Gavin Macomber, senior vice president of marketing at First Orion, said he believes in a combination of free and premium anti-robocall services. "Basic protection should be available to everyone for free," he said.

In late 2017, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said the agency should prohibit operators for charging for blocking fraudulent calls. "The FCC takes action to ostensibly reduce robocalls but then makes sure you can pay for the privilege. If you ask me, that's ridiculous," she said.

But FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, stressed the FCC is not trying to impose new regulations but rather is hoping to spur innovation. "We aren't piling more rules upon industry. Instead, we're providing relief from FCC rules that are having the perverse effect of facilitating unlawful and unwanted robocalls," he said.