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The FCC Chairman Isn’t Happy With the Tech Industry’s ‘Robocall Strike Force’

October 27, 2016

Federal Communication Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler waits for a hearing at the FCC December 11, 2014 in Washington, DC. Photograph by Brendan Smialowski—AFP/Getty Images

A task force of more than 30 major technology and communication companies said they have made progress but have not found a solution to eliminate “robocalls” or automated, prerecorded phone calls, but a top U.S. regulator urged faster action.

“We are not yet where we want to be,” Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler said Wednesday at a meeting of industry executives who have been working on the issue since August. “We’ve not reached the goal. We need solutions now.”

The strike force said it would report back by early 2017 on strategies for blocking unwanted automated calls. But Wheeler wants “commitments and timelines” to move up action.

AT&T (T) Chief Executive Officer Randall Stephenson, who is chairing the strike force, said the blue-ribbon group has “come a long way in 60 days and we’ve got a long way to go—I fully recognize that Mr. Chairman,” he said. “There’s no one part of this ecosystem that’s going to fix this. So it’s going to take everybody’s cumulative efforts.”

Wheeler wrote major companies in July urging them to take new action to block robocalls, saying it was the top source of consumer complaints at the FCC. Scam artists often times based abroad try to appear to call from a bank or a government phone to trick consumers into disclosing confidential financial or account information.

Wheeler said he and Stephenson will bring the strike force back together in six months to check in on the group’s progress. Google parent Alphabet (GOOG), Apple (AAPL), Verizon Communications (VZ), and Comcast (CMCSA) are among members of the “Robocall Strike Force” that joined the task force that has met more than 100 times since August.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said more action is needed. “There are no prizes for participation,” she said.


The strike force hopes to implement Caller ID verification standards to help block calls from spoofed phone numbers and eventually create a “Do Not Originate” list that would block spoofers from impersonating legitimate phone numbers from governments, banks or others. It is also working on authentication standards in a bid to try to ensure a phone call is from the number that appears.

The task force ran a “Do Not Originate” with Internal Revenue Service phone numbers that were often spoofed that reduced robocall complaints by 90%.

The IRS phone numbers on the list had to be “receive only” and had to be entered into a database, said Joan Marsh AT&T’s vice president for federal regulatory affairs. “There is no easy way for any of this,” she said.

There are other technical issues about how to create and manage the database of phone numbers and how carriers get access to the database.

Carriers cannot block all mass automated calls or texts made because of legitimate communications from schools, weather alerts, utilities, political calls, and others. Marsh said it is tough to “get the bad ones” but not block calls people want.

Hiya, a company that tracks unwanted calls, estimates that U.S. mobile phones received 984 million robocalls in September.

The FCC does not require robocall blocking and filtering but has strongly encouraged phone service providers to offer those services at no charge.

The strike force brought together carriers, device makers, operating system developers, network designers and the government.

Other companies taking part include Blackberry, British Telecommunications, Charter Communications, Frontier Communications, LG Electronics, Microsoft, Nokia, Qualcomm, Samsung Electronics, Sirius XM Holdings, T-Mobile US, and U.S. Cellular.