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AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile Challenge Rule Targeting Robocalls

05/09/2021 | 03:44am EDT

By Ryan Tracy

WASHINGTON -- The nation's largest wireless carriers are lobbying to delay a new regulation on robocalls aimed at overseas scammers who make them, citing concerns that the rule could end up blocking legitimate calls.

The Federal Communications Commission rule, set to take effect Sept. 28, would require foreign-based phone companies to step up efforts to fight illegal robocalls or risk being blocked from sending calls to the U.S.

Many of the billions of robocalls annoying Americans emanate from India, the Philippines and other countries. FCC officials say the regulation, known as the foreign provider prohibition, would allow them to better trace the sources of illegal calls and block companies that carry them.

The nation's largest telecoms -- AT&T Inc., Verizon Communications Inc. and T-Mobile US Inc. -- say they support measures aimed at stemming illegal robocalls, but that the foreign-provider prohibition as written could have unintended negative consequences.

They say foreign-based phone companies aren't prepared for the rule, which could lead to legitimate calls being blocked because U.S. carriers aren't allowed to accept calls from companies that aren't in compliance.

For example, if an American customer travels to India and calls home with her mobile phone, the call might not go through if the local Indian phone company isn't in good standing with the FCC.

CTIA, a trade group representing Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile, petitioned the FCC to delay implementation in December and said the foreign provider prohibition "lacks sufficient support" under the Administrative Procedure Act. Executives have since been calling FCC staff to make their case for a delay, FCC records show.

"We strongly support the direction the FCC is going to address the foreign robocall problem, to police the edge of the U.S. telephone network," Verizon associate general counsel Christopher Oatway said in an interview. "We would like to pause the process, reexamine what needs to be done and continue to work on ways to create effective barriers to these incessant calls."

George Slover, senior policy counsel with Consumer Reports, a nonprofit that reviews products and advocates for consumers, said it is important that the rules don't affect Americans' legitimate calls, but the FCC shouldn't delay too long.

"A slight pause could be helpful" to address unintended consequences, he said. "If the foreign providers aren't making every effort to complete and certify compliance, there needs to be consequences for that."

In comments to the FCC, the only person to counter the telecoms' delay request was David Frankel, chief executive of ZipDX LLC, a Utah-based conference call provider.

Mr. Frankel, who helped develop an industry robocall tracing program, conceded that the program might inconvenience some Americans traveling abroad. But he said those whose calls are blocked have other methods at their disposal, such as a wifi call, text or calling from a hotel or office.

"How many Americans are overseas in circumstances where they are trying to call home this way, versus how many people are being bombarded with these illegal calls?" he asked.

The wireless giants declined to say how many customers might be affected by the rule. A CTIA spokesman said the group's focus "is on working with the FCC to help clarify the scope and implementation."

AT&T and T-Mobile declined to comment. Other companies have written to the FCC backing the wireless giants.

The FCC declined to comment. It isn't required to respond to the industry's pending petition.

The foreign provider prohibition is part of a broader agenda to plug the robocall deluge. Like other anti-robocall moves, it cuts against history.

The telephone network was set up to ensure calls go through no matter what. Now the industry and regulators are trying to cut off illegal calls before they ring.

The FCC has empowered companies to block suspected illegal calls, mandated caller ID authentication and threatened to shut down small companies facilitating illegal calls. Big wireless companies generally cheered these moves.

The foreign provider prohibition would extend the fight beyond U.S. borders. It requires any phone company that wants to send a call to the U.S. bearing a U.S. number to first register with the FCC and certify that it has taken "specific reasonable steps" to mitigate illegal calls.

Once registered, the company's name will go into an FCC database. U.S. phone companies may only accept calls from companies in the database.

In effect, the FCC is creating leverage for itself to police overseas phone companies. If one of them is found to be sending illegal calls, the FCC could remove the company's name from the database, which would mean U.S. companies have to stop accepting the company's calls.

Some in the industry call this framework a "chain of trust," where each company that touches a phone call is agreeing to watch out for scams. If the chain only includes U.S. companies, that "would ignore a majority of the worst illegal robocall traffic ravaging U.S. consumers," Verizon told the FCC in a May 2020 letter.

Now the wireless giants say the chain of trust isn't ready for prime time. AT&T said that as of February, it had attempted to contact more than 50 foreign carriers, and one intended to register. That could lead to problems with international calls, a source of revenue for U.S. carriers.

In an April 13 meeting with FCC staff, executives from AT&T and Verizon raised another argument. The foreign provider prohibition has a potential loophole, they said, because it applies only to companies who send calls to the U.S. directly. If a company instead sent the call through a middleman, it could get around the rule.

"This would be a breakdown of the chain of trust," executives told the staff, according to a letter to the FCC summarizing the meeting.

Mr. Frankel, CEO of the Utah telecom company, said problems with the rule should be worked out without delaying its impact.

"We have this rampant illegal robocall problem in this country, which has been festering and ongoing," he said. "For the telecommunications carriers in this country to say, 'Let's press the pause button and kick the can'...I said, 'No!' "

Write to Ryan Tracy at ryan.tracy@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

05-09-21 0544ET

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