FCC Expands Robocall Regime to Intermediaries, Establishes Robotext Protections

WASHINGTON, March 16, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission voted in its meeting Thursday to require providers that receive and deliver phone traffic to implement call authentication standards mandated under its STIR/SHAKEN robocall regime and to implement basic protections from problematic robotexts.

Under the previous rules, only voice service providers that originate and terminate calls were required to implement analytical tools that are intended to ensure, among other things, that the phone numbers appearing on caller I.D. are actually from the holder of the number to stop scam calls. But the STIR/SHAKEN robocall regime, which the commission began to enforce in June 2021, did not extend to the middlemen, or intermediary, providers.

That changed Thursday when the commission voted unanimously to broaden the regime to first intermediaries. The commission said that there are still some initiating call providers who are not capable of using the STIR/SHAKEN framework and still others who deliberately fail to authenticate the calls, hence why authentication should be implemented along the call traffic route, the commission said.

“By requiring the next provider in the call path to authenticate those calls, the FCC closes a gap in the caller ID authentication regime and facilitates government and industry efforts to identify and block illegal robocalls,” the commission said in a news release.

As such, intermediary service providers that fail to comply with the new rules will now also be subject to removal from the Robocall Mitigation Database, which would mean other providers would not be able to receive their call traffic.

The FCC noted that the new rules, which require the intermediaries to comply with by December 31, would “maximize” the number of authenticated calls.

In addition, the new FCC rules require all voice service providers to take “reasonable steps” to mitigate illegal robocall traffic and submit to the commission a certification and mitigation plan that would also include details about the provider’s role in the call chain, STIR/SHAKEN implementation obligations, and any law enforcement, regulatory or investigation into such illegal calls.

The commission has taken aggressive action in recent months against providers who have allegedly been non-complaint with the regime, including proposing record fines and forcing other providers to halt driving to and receiving traffic from offenders.

The rules impose fines on a per call basis and establish enforcement consequences for repeat offenders.

Illegal robocalls are number one complaint the FCC hears about from consumers, according to the commission.

FCC adopts first rules on robotexts and asks about further regulatory measures

The commission also unanimously adopted rules against scam text messages sent to consumers and is asking the public about further regulator actions it should take to protect against the texts.

The order adopted Thursday would require mobile service providers to block text messages that are “highly likely to be illegal,” including from phone numbers that are “invalid, unallocated, or unused.” The rules will also apply to numbers whom the subscriber said it never used to send text messages and to those of government agencies that identify the numbers as not being used for texting. It also requires the providers establish a point of contact for text senders, which senders “can use to inquire about blocked texts.”

The commission is also seeking comment on a proposal to clarify that Do-Not-Call Registry protections, which blocks marketing messages to the registered numbers in the database, apply to text messages. The commission said this would close the “lead generator loophole,” in which companies can use a texted point of consent to “deliver robocalls and text messages from multiple – perhaps thousands – of marketers on subjects that may not be what the consumer had in mind.”

Comments are due 30 days after the proposal’s publication in the federal register.

Text message scams have increased 500 percent in recent years, according to the commission, with complaints rising from roughly 3,300 to 18,900 per year from 2015 to 2022. The commission noted that unlike robocalls, text messages are “hard to ignore or hang-up on and are nearly always read by the recipient.” They can also include links that leads to websites that can install malicious software on the consumer’s phone, the agency said.

Agency chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposed the rules last month.

“Robocalls and robotexts are a huge annoyance for everyone,” said a statement from Nick Garcia, policy counsel to advocacy group Public Knowledge. “We’re frequently bombarded with illegal scams and shady spammers – and many consumers don’t know how to protect themselves or where to turn for help. It’s clear that we need strong rules to cut down on this growing problem.

“The FCC has made great strides in combating robocalls, and it is encouraging to see that work continue while the FCC now takes steps to ensure consumers are protected from illegal and unwanted text messages,” Garcia added. “Today’s rules are a win for consumers, providing a common-sense baseline of protection from the kinds of illegal robotexts that are most obvious to identify—those that spoof invalid, unallocated, unused, or inbound-only numbers.”

Satellite to ground mobile coverage and prison call rates proposals 

The commission also unanimously voted in favor of initiating a proceeding on a proposal from the chairwoman last month to allow for satellite broadband providers to get authorization to use the flexible spectrum already licensed to agreeing ground-based mobile wireless providers to fill in dead zones not covered by the latter.

The supplemental coverage proposal, part of the commission’s “single network future” vision, is for non-geostationary orbit satellite operators, such as low-earth orbit satellite providers like SpaceX’s Starlink, focused on portions spectrum in the 600 MHz, 700 MHz, 800 MHz Cellular Radiotelephone Service, and the Wireless Communications Service (2305 to 2360 MHz) bands.

“Connecting consumers to essential wireless services where no terrestrial mobile service is available can be life-saving in remote locations and can open up innovative opportunities for consumers and businesses,” the FCC said.

The commission is also asking how this framework could support access to emergency services like 9-1-1 and wireless emergency alerts.

There have been a number of partnerships between satellite broadband providers and mobile wireless providers for this purpose. In August, SpaceX announced its Starlink satellites will be able to connect T-Mobile’s customers in rural areas to fill gaps in the ground network by having the space company use a portion of T-Mobile’s Personal Communications Services spectrum. The service is anticipated for later this year.

The commission also unanimously voted to initiate a proceeding into implementing a new law requiring the agency to look into the prices charged to incarcerated people to call loved ones.

Passed late last year and enacted in January, the Martha Wright-Reed Just and Reasonable Communications Act requires the FCC to review those rates by expanding its authority over those communications services. Previously, the commission only had authority between states and foreign locations; now, it’s being handed authority to tackle rates and charges for voice and video calls within states. The law requires the regulator to adopt “just and reasonable rates” no earlier than 18 months and no later than 24 months since enactment.

As such, the commission is asking commenters about the expansion of the regulator’s authority to deal with interstate calls, what “just and reasonable” means in the context of the law, how to approach setting rates, and the commission’s ability to ensure communication service for people with disabilities.

The FCC cited studies that it said show incarcerated people “who have regular contact with family members are more likely to succeed after release and have lower recidivism rates.”

Public Knowledge, in a separate statement, also applauded the proposed rulemaking to address “unconscionable phone rates” that “impose undue hardship on families.”

Comments on both matters are due 30 days after their publication in the federal register.