Everyone seems happy about the launch of the Robocall Strike Force, which AT&T is facilitating at the behest of the Federal Communications Commission.
They should be. While robocalls have been a growing problem for years, only now has the FCC managed to convince the major carriers, the major internet providers and the rest of the phone industry to take the problem seriously.
To this end, the FCC officially kicked off the operation on Aug. 19 to much ballyhoo and plenty of self-congratulatory statements. Theoretically, the group will have found the answer in time for the next meeting with the FCC on Oct. 19. Whether that hope will become reality remains to be seen.
But at least the promise of an end to robocalls won’t fail due to a lack of earnest statements of concern about the problem and the need to find a solution.
“We know there is a problem,” FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said in her prepared statement for the meeting. “We know how much consumers dislike these calls. We know the public is frustrated, because they assumed that after they registered for the Do Not Call list, this would stop. It did not, so now it is time to take some real action.”
In a rare display of bipartisan support, Republican FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai described his dismay at having robocalls interrupt a “Monday Night Football” telecast. “Artificial or prerecorded calls—”robocalls,” as they’re known—are awful,” Pai said in his prepared statement.
“They’re intrusive. They’re unwanted. Many, like the recent wave of IRS-related robocalls, are a scam. Robocalls and telemarketing calls are the number one source of consumer complaints received by the FCC.”
So now the Strike Force has been empowered to charge off and come up with a solution. Problem is, fixing the robocall problem is really hard. Robocall operations have been working on ways to evade the law for years now, using techniques such as spoofing their caller ID, calling from locations outside the United States where our laws don’t apply, by entering the public switched telephone network from external VOIP connections, among other things.
Adding to the complexity is that phone service isn’t delivered by a single entity. In addition to the traditional switched copper phone lines, there are VOIP phones and cell phones.
Each uses a different technology to connect a voice call and each of those methods has a different company behind it. Getting all of those players plus government interests to move in the same direction is a lot like herding cats, but less fun to watch. But the fact is, this is a problem with a solution once everyone agrees to move toward that common goal.
Beating Robocall ‘Scourge’ Won’t Be Easy for FCC-Backed Strike Force
Nomorobo has been successfully blocking robocalls for years, and in 2013, the company won the Federal Trade Commission’s Robocall Challenge. While Nomorobo doesn’t block robocalls to every type of phone (my copper wire landline is beyond help, apparently), it does work with VOIP and cell phone lines. So I asked the founder of Nomorobo, Aaron Foss, what he thought about the new Strike Force.
Foss said that the fact that the FCC was calling it a strike force and has enlisted the support of 30 communications and technology companies is important. “What I think has changed is the timing and what’s available,” he said. Foss noted that he’s proved that it’s possible to block robocalls, despite years of industry claims that it’s impossible. “We’ve shown it can be done.”
Foss also noted that only now are Apple and Google making it possible for apps on their respective mobile platforms to actually block calls. For example, he noted that iOS 10, the latest version of Apple’s mobile operating system, will include support for call blocking.
However, to provide a more comprehensive solution, Nomorobo created an entire database of robocaller phone numbers that can be referenced as a way to block calls. He has also created a white-list database so that Nomorobo won’t block calls that should go through, including calls from first responders, government entities, schools and the like.
Perhaps more important than his work in blocking robocalls are Nomorobo’s vast databases of phone numbers used by robocallers and white-list numbers that are available to whomever comes up with a robocall blocking solution.
“That data has to come from somewhere,” Foss said. “We can license the data.”
He also suggested that if the industry players and the FCC really want to find a robocall blocking solution, they can talk to Nomorobo about their corporate experience. “They should leave it up to the professionals,” he said.
The launch of the Strike Force means that something might actually be done to defeat what FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler calls the “scourge” of robocalls. Until now, the major carriers hid behind claims that the blocking of robocalls would be illegal and used that as an excuse not to do anything.
The FCC told the carriers a year ago that blocking robocalls was allowed, but still nothing happened. Now the FCC is holding their collective feet to the fire and also providing actual leadership.
Unfortunately, all of that is unlikely to eliminate robocalls, but it may reduce them and it may make the process sufficiently annoying for the robocallers and reduce their profits. But until the FCC and the industry find a way to eliminate the profits from robocalling, the scourge will continue indefinitely.