Joining Forces to Make the FCC’s Robocalling Initiative a Reality

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has acted to resolve one of the biggest scourges of modern times: malicious robocalling and caller ID spoofing. A formal recommendation on unwanted call blocking made in September 2017 builds on the output of the industry-wide Robocall Strike Force, consisting of telecom services providers, technology experts and consumer groups, to continue work on eliminating this nuisance.

At September’s inaugural Mobile World Congress Americas, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai reiterated that stopping bogus calling is the number one consumer priority of the FCC, and that a group of stakeholders should come together and bring their individual expertise to the table to jointly solve it.

Robocalling is a huge issue. According to the Youmail robocall index, during August the U.S. endured a record-breaking 2.9 billion wanted and unwanted robocalls, up 1.8% since July, and a 10% increase over the same month last year. That amount equals an astonishing 93.7 million robocalls received every day during August. The biggest concern is those unwanted robocalls that are the source of calling scams. The Consumers Union warns that at present levels robocalling scams are costing the U.S. public about $350 million a year.

Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO AARP, summed the situation up recently, “The best way for us to avoid being victimized by these scammers is to become aware that they exist, and to learn all we can about how to prevent and avoid them. Working together, we can expose their dirty tricks and put them out of business.”

It’s easy to understand why fixing this problem is the FCC’s number one priority.

Work to stop these irritating and sometimes harmful calls is being tackled from all angles including regulations and fines, standards and solutions, as well as education for consumers and business. However, there’s a very fundamental conundrum – how to distinguish between the bad calls and the good – to stop unwanted robocalling but allow for “business as usual” from services that keep consumers and business informed.

Service providers have the ability at the network level to block incoming calls they deem to be suspicious. It’s a pretty complex process with a risk of accidentally blocking legitimate calls, so in addition to a focus on the technical side, it also requires an understanding of what types of calls consumers find valuable.

These could, for example, be the local pharmacy notifying that medication is ready to pick up, or a call updating on a delayed flight time at the airport. It’s all vital, important information that consumers do not want to miss. And businesses, like the pharmacy and airline, need to have an effective way to communicate with their customers to provide a great customer experience.

The FCC’s recommendations

The September 2017 recommendation from the FCC Consumer Advisory Committee fully supports the concept of service providers leading the charge to block illegal calls. A crucial part of the recommendations is an objective set of standards that are applicable across all network technologies, and which stakeholders can rely on to speed initiative progress.

The recommendations set out separate work streams that can be applied in tackling both bad and good calling that will filter calls, block some of them, and yet include consumers as part of the stakeholder group by empowering them to make informed decisions about what gets blocked:

  • Calls suspected of being illegal should be blocked by service providers
  • Service providers should support and enforce consumer decisions, from their perspective, about which calls to block
  • Calls that originate from invalid numbers, numbers not allocated to a service provider or numbers that have not been assigned to the consumer, need to be blocked by the service provider
  • Tools must be developed for consumers that offer them options if they wish to block calls outside of these categories
  • Stakeholders must work together to allow legitimate calls a path through the net that catches the bad ones

The FCC recommends that suspect calls should be blocked by service providers. Along with Neustar, there is industry support that consumers could make their own choices to block or receive some calls if they were better informed about when a call is suspected to be illegitimate. Not all calls that appear this way are in fact bogus. Therefore, a combination of analytics and customer notifications is proposed to help consumers make their own choices, have greater control and not miss out on calls that are important to them.

Transparency on how this is done is a crucial component in delivering exactly what consumers want, and keeping them informed of positive blocking actions. So, service providers were reminded by the FCC of the need to communicate to the consumer when there’s a change to their phone service. Here, the ultimate objective is for consumers to “buy-in” to the process and therefore become catalysts to speed the success of the initiative.

How we can establish consumer trust

We can all agree with the FCC that objective standards are the way forward because other than basic Caller ID information, we have no way of knowing in advance the actual content, purpose or intent of any individual call. And today there is no deployed mechanism that can show if the displayed number is accurate. This is where the risk of accidentally blocking legitimate calls increases, because there’s an inherent difficulty in determining the legitimacy of calls with absolute certainty.

The Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the ATIS-SIP Forum Joint NNI Task Force have created standards (STIR/SHAKEN) to allow operators to authenticate, digitally sign, and verify calling numbers. This provides users and call-blocking services with calling number they can trust, and establishes a solid foundation for a range of techniques to reduce unwanted robocalls. This critical enabling standard is being tested in the ATIS Robocalling Testbed hosted by the Neustar Trust Lab. This initiative brings together communication industry leaders including regulators and industry groups, technology companies, service providers, big brands and enterprises to collaborate on enabling secure and relevant connections.

From a practical standpoint, stakeholders need to be confident that STIR/SHAKEN will work even if they’re originating a call from one carrier’s network and terminating on another. And this process needs to be invisible to consumers, who just expect the flow of “good” calls to continue in the meantime. The Robocalling Testbed is increasing industry confidence that this technology will “just work.”

Giving consumers the power to improve their own service

Consumers want to enjoy both mobile and fixed line services with the freedom and flexibility to make their own choices with their calls. To do that safely, we believe they need accurate information about a call so they can make an informed decision about how it should be handled, as it arrives. Enhanced information beyond caller ID, when delivered with digital authentication, will build on the core capabilities provided by STIR/SHAKEN and will help consumers feel empowered to make an informed decision about whether or not to answer the call while still offering brands a way to increase their engagement and impact.

It’s really encouraging to see all the players in the ecosystem working together, helping customers make that decision and retaining informed control over which calls to accept. Once negative robocalling experiences are eliminated, consumers will safely be able to answer their phone and businesses will be able to engage in meaningful conversations with their customers.

Jonjie Sena, ATIS TOPS Council and Sr. Director of Product Marketing, Neustar, Inc.