FCC chairman Ajit Pai is proposing to provide carriers legal certainty that they are allowed to block robocalls, an effort he has teed up for a vote at the FCC's June 6 public meeting. 

He has circulated a declaratory ruling to the other commissioners for their vote.  

Under the proposal, the FCC would allow phone companies to block calls to their customers by default and could allow those customers to block calls not on their contact lists. The would also be a draft Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (FNPRM) would propose a "safe harbor" for "providers that implement network-wide blocking of calls that fail caller authentication under the SHAKEN/STIR framework once it is implemented." 

The chairman outlined the proposal to reporters in advance of his planned testimony before the House Communications Subcommittee FCC oversight hearing Wednesday (May 15). Last month, the subcommittee held a legislative hearing on a half dozen bills to battle the "scourge" of unwanted robocalls. 

Pai said carriers would have to let consumers who don't want them to block their calls to opt out. He said the proposal should make a "significant dent" in unwanted robocalls. 

The chairman did not quantify how significant that dent would be, but said the fact that call blocking would be allowed explicitly would encourage broader development and adoption.  He said he wanted to set a clear legal foundation for default blocking. 

The chairman encouraged carriers to offer the service for free, but anticipated in any event the cost to carriers would be less than the current regime of downline call blocking. He said he did not anticipate a cost would be passed on to the consumer.  

The FCC is under pressure from Congress to help consumers weed out unwanted robocalls--for one thing, legislators keep pointing out that they get such calls during the hearings they have been holding about how to stop them--but it has also been a priority for the chairman. 

In prepared testimony for Wednesday's hearing, he pointed out just how much of a priority: "During my tenure as FCC chairman, I’ve had the opportunity to set the agenda for 27 monthly meetings," he said. "At almost half of those meetings, we’ve voted on measures to fight unlawful robocalls and caller ID spoofing. 

Just in the past couple of weeks, the FCC has scheduled a robocall summit for July, threatened regulation if carriers had not implemented the SHAKEN/STIR caller ID framework for combating such calls and issued a BOLO (be on the listen out, as it were) for "one-ring" robocalls that rack up charges from recipients that call back.

Pai said the FNPRM safe harbor should help encourage carriers to quickly adopt the SHAKEN/STIR regime.  The safe harbor means that to the extent that a carrier uses SHAKEN/STIR, a call that is blocked by default would not trigger legal liability. 

The chairman said that if carriers don't implement the SHAKEN/STIR framework by year's end, he is ready to regulate compliance. 

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel told legislators at an oversight hearing that she looked forward to reviewing the proposal, but also said she hoped it was not "too little, too late."

“Chairman Pai’s leadership in the fight to protect Americans from fraudulent robocalls is vital to winning the war on unwanted calls," said Eric Schaefer, SVP and GM of boranda and communications services at Comcast. "His announcement today that he is sending his fellow commissioners proposed actions to empower voice providers to implement default robocall blocking is great news for consumers. We will have another tool that will permit us to protect our customers by stopping illegal robocalls before they reach our customers’ phones.Unwanted robocalls represent one of the biggest issues facing phone customers, and we’re committed to addressing it, particularly through our leadership in developing and deploying the SHAKEN/STIR call-verification standard."

“Today, Chairman Pai took aggressive steps in the FCC’s campaign against the robocall problem by proposing new rules that will expand a provider’s ability to block calls that are believed to be unlawful or made with the intent to scam consumers," said Joan Marsh, AT&T EVP. "We also support the Chairman’s safe harbor proposal, which will increase the arsenal of tools available to combat calls that are not authenticated."

“The criminals that are scamming consumers with this flood of illegal robocalls must be confronted by industry and government head-on," said USTelecom President Jonathan Spalter. "This is a big and bold proposal by the FCC that can bolster our industry’s cutting-edge call blocking and authentication efforts and do something important: stop unwanted calls from reaching consumers in the first place.”

“NTCA’s hometown operators have close connections to the communities they serve, and they are eager to be part of the solution for robocalling problems in light of significant customer frustration," said Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA-the Rural Broadband Association. "As the FCC considers how best to solve these concerns, it will be important to consider and overcome any barriers that could hinder smaller rural providers’ full participation in these efforts. NTCA looks forward to working with the FCC and other stakeholders to ensure that any solutions adopted can be implemented throughout communications networks, rural and urban, by providers large and small, for the benefit of consumers everywhere.” 

“I applaud Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai for announcing plans to circulate to his fellow commissioners a draft ruling that would affirm voice providers’ ability to offer robocall blocking tools to customers on an informed opt-out basis. Taking this step would empower providers to deploy tools more widely that can protect customers from nuisance calls and scams, and those customers that are less familiar with and slower to adopt new technologies are particularly likely to benefit.

"House Communications subcommittee Chairman Mike Doyle and Republican Leader Bob Latta have included a similar proposal in their STOP Robocalls Act, which suggests there is bipartisan support for this commonsense approach. We look forward to reviewing the full text of the FCC’s draft ruling and continuing to work closely with the FCC, our industry peers, and other stakeholders on measures to combat the scourge of unwanted robocalls.”