Archive for June, 2017

Consumer Protection Month at the FCC

Thursday, June 22nd, 2017

Americans are reaping the benefits of rapid and exciting changes in the ways we communicate.  But many of the problems that consumers confront stubbornly remain.

For too long, Americans have been plagued by unwanted and unlawful robocalls.  For too long, they’ve found unauthorized charges and changes to their phone service on their bills—practices commonly known as “slamming” and “cramming.”  And for too long, some phone calls that are placed to rural residents have been dropped.

Efforts to excommunicate this unholy triad of consumer scourges—unlawful robocalls, slamming/cramming, and rural call completion—headline the FCC’s agenda in July.  During Consumer Protection Month, we will take up several public interest initiatives to address problems that too many Americans face.

  1. Robocalls

Unlawful robocalls generate the most frequent source of consumer complaints to the FCC.  As agency-watchers know, we’re not starting from scratch in attacking the problem.  This past March, the Commission proposed to give voice providers greater leeway to block many “spoofed” calls—specifically, calls that purport to be from unassigned or invalid phone numbers.  This move will hopefully pave the way for Do-Not-Originate lists that will help stifle the efforts of illegitimate callers and scam artists.  And we’ve made robocalls our top enforcement priority.  Just today, the FCC took a major step, proposing to fine the alleged perpetrator of a vast spoofing operation $120 million for the 96 million robocalls he unleashed on American consumers in just three months—robocalls that bilked many vulnerable consumers out of their hard-earned money.

In July, we’re going to address two other issues that could help combat robocalls.  First, we’ll explore setting up a reliable system for authenticating phone calls.  Among other things, this system would verify that a phone call is really coming from the phone number that shows up on caller ID.  Right now, too many malicious robocallers hide their true originating phone number.  This lets them evade call-blocking or filtering tools and trick consumers about a call’s true source.  An authentication system would help to crack down on this behavior and strengthen call-blocking.  I’ve shared a proposal along these lines with my colleagues.

Next month, we’ll also begin to address the problem of calls that are made to reassigned phone numbers.  Here’s the scenario: a customer consents to receive calls from a particular business.  But later, he switches phone numbers.  Someone new is then assigned that customer’s old phone number.  She ends up receiving calls that she doesn’t want. 

This might seem like a highly specific problem, but an estimated 100,000 numbers are reassigned by wireless carriers every day, with errant phone calls following.  So this issue confronts millions of Americans.  To tackle this problem, the FCC will vote on considering how reassigned telephone number data could easily be made available to businesses, such as through a consolidated database.  Those businesses—restaurants, furniture stores, and the like—could use such a database to ensure that their calls reach the intended recipients.

2.  Slamming and Cramming

Too often, we learn about unscrupulous carriers that are targeting the vulnerable.  For example, the FCC recently heard from an elderly woman who received a call about a postal service package that supposedly hadn’t been delivered.  Her verbal responses were then used to unwittingly switch her phone carrier.  This case is a bread-and-butter case of deception to “slam” an older consumer.

To address cases like hers, I’m proposing a rule to that would expressly ban misrepresentations on sales calls that typically precede a slam.  I’m also urging changes to our regulations that would make it harder for fraudsters to “cram” consumers—that is, put unauthorized charges on consumers’ phone bills.

3.  Rural Call Completion

Protecting consumers goes beyond just fighting illicit schemes.  It also involves making sure that they get what they pay for.  Unfortunately, rural telephone customers aren’t always assured of that.  Calls to rural areas drop or never go through too often.  In fact, we know that call failure occurs at higher rates for rural consumers than it does for urban ones.

This isn’t right.  Whether you live in a big city or a small town, a call placed by a loved one, friend, or customer should go through. 

In 2013, the FCC took action to address this problem.  The number of rural call completion complaints we receive has dropped since then.  But we’re still not where we need to be.  That’s why I’m proposing new steps to make our rural call completion rules more effective and less burdensome.  In particular, I’m asking the FCC to adopt new, strong rural call completion requirements for certain telecommunications carriers.  At the same time, we want calls to rural America to remain affordable, so we’re looking at ways to reduce the burden of existing regulations, such as by eliminating some of the paperwork carriers must file with the Commission that hasn’t proven to be very useful.

4.  Helping Consumers with Disabilities

Another way the FCC protects consumers is by making sure communications services are accessible to Americans with disabilities.  At our meeting, the agency will consider rules to expand the availability of video-described programming on top-rated broadcast and non-broadcast networks.  Specifically, we’ll vote on increasing the number of hours of programming that covered broadcasters and video programmers must provide by 75%.  If we take this step, blind and visually-impaired Americans will be able to better understand and enjoy a wider range of popular programming.

5.  Other Initiatives

Our consumer protection agenda for July won’t stop there.  Harnessing the power of technology to promote innovation is another FCC priority that empowers consumers.  This is increasingly true when they’re on the road.  For instance, radars in vehicles can enable a variety of safety features such as collision avoidance.  To encourage this kind of innovation, the FCC will consider rules that would allocate a large block of high-band frequencies (76-81 GHz spectrum) for use by vehicular radars—if you will, the advanced sensors that are being placed in cars.  This spectrum, among other things, would support new short-range radar applications to enhance driver safety.

Rounding out the FCC’s July agenda is a proposal to bring our equipment authorization rules up to date, as well as a proposal to revise our rules governing wireless microphones.

After yesterday’s summer solstice, the days are getting shorter again.  But the list of items on the Commission’s July agenda remains long.  During Consumer Protection Month, we’ll extend our efforts to address the problems Americans confront in the communications marketplace and to crack down on those who prey upon the vulnerable for their own financial gain.

Heading Together Toward the Future

Friday, June 2nd, 2017

My post introducing the FCC’s infrastructure initiatives a few weeks ago mentioned Marty McFly’s misguided worries about running out of road in the 1985 film “Back to the Future.” As you might remember, Dr. Brown assured Marty that roads wouldn’t be needed in the future.

The wireless networks of the future too will look very different. Instead of just big towers that intermittently dot the landscape, the wireless networks of our future will rely on much smaller building blocks—things like “small cells” and “distributed antenna systems.” These new kinds of infrastructure take up much less space. They are generally much less noticeable. They impact the environment less. And because they operate at lower power, they will be deployed at many more locations than towers.

As we move from the networks of today to those of tomorrow, the FCC wants to work collaboratively with everyone affected—particularly Tribal partners. That’s why, later this month, I’ll hit the road to discuss this transition with Tribal Nations. Some FCC coworkers and I have been kindly invited to attend the Mid-Year Session of the National Conference of American Indians (NCAI), which is the “oldest, largest, and most representative American Indian and Alaska Native organization” serving Tribal interests. We’ll be participating in consultation sessions with a number of Tribes (and in addition to these NCAI sessions, dedicated FCC staff are already doing outreach to Tribes on both conference calls and visits to Indian Country).

The FCC has a long and successful history of working with Tribes on a wide range of issues affecting Indian Country. These relationships led us to create a groundbreaking system, the Tower Construction Notification System (TCNS). This is an online system that notifies federally recognized Tribes, Native Hawaiian Organizations, and State Historic Preservation Officers about proposed wireless construction projects. The TCNS is widely acknowledged by Tribal Nations, industry, and other government entities as an important, effective tool to help ensure that these projects respect historic properties of religious and cultural significance to Tribes.

The rules, protocols, and practices governing TCNS were crafted more than a decade ago, and as I mentioned earlier, advances in wireless networks are proceeding apace. It’s a challenge to match the two, but the FCC is aiming to do that in order to modernize our rules and close the digital divide. I’m excited to discuss this initiative with our Tribal partners. Going forward—just as in the past—we want to ensure that potential effects on culturally significant sites are identified and alternatives to avoid or minimize such effects are considered.

I believe that the FCC and Tribal Nations share the same goal—ensuring high-speed Internet access to anyone who wants it, while respecting and preserving sites with historic, religious, and cultural significance to Tribes. To achieve this goal, the FCC needs to and wants to exchange perspectives with Tribes on the full range of issues associated with the deployment of wireless broadband infrastructure. I’m personally committed to that.

I invite the leaders of the 567 federally-recognized Tribes and Native Hawaiian Organizations to join this important conversation. The FCC takes seriously its federal trust responsibilities and wants to have meaningful consultations. I look forward to listening, learning, and working together to sustain and improve our processes as our wireless networks go back to the future.

Supporting our Public Safety Heroes

Thursday, June 1st, 2017

You may never need them, but if you do, they’ll be there.

It’s that bedrock promise of protection that makes our public safety officials the unsung heroes that they are.  Whether it’s police officers, firefighters, first responders, or 911 dispatchers, many dedicated Americans work long hours, and often in difficult conditions, to make sure that when someone’s in need, they can help.

One of the reasons why Congress created the FCC—a reason it embedded in the very first section of the Communications Act of 1934—was “for the purpose of promoting safety of life and property through the use of wire and radio communications.”  At our next public meeting on June 22, the FCC will aim to meet this charge by considering three ways to help law enforcement and first responders do their jobs.  We will recognize and support these often-unsung heroes during Public Safety Month at the Commission.

I had the privilege of previewing one of these items, relating to “Blue Alerts,” at the U.S. Department of Justice a couple of weeks ago.  The Emergency Alert System (EAS) has saved countless lives by warning TV viewers or radio listeners about matters like a child who has been abducted (now-familiar “Amber Alerts”) or extreme weather.  I have proposed authorizing a new EAS code for imminent threats against law enforcement.  Blue Alerts can warn the public when there is actionable information related to a law enforcement officer who is missing, seriously injured, or killed in the line of duty, or when there is a credible, short-term threat to an officer.  If a violent suspect is in your immediate community, Blue Alerts could give you instructions on what to do.  These instructions could help you stay safe and help supply time-sensitive information to authorities if a suspect is sighted. 

If this item is approved, we’ll then seek public input on whether the EAS is the right way to deliver Blue Alerts.  We’ll also explore whether a dedicated EAS code can enable the uniform, nationwide delivery of Blue Alerts to the public.

Speaking of nationwide communications systems, the second public safety matter we’ll consider would get us closer to finally creating a nationwide, interoperable broadband network that public safety officials can use.  This initiative, which began several years ago, is known as the First Responder Network Authority, or FirstNet.  As directed by the Public Safety Spectrum Act of 2012, the FCC has already provided FirstNet a license for 20 MHz of wireless broadband spectrum.  We have already given FirstNet the basic technical requirements for the network.  And our spectrum auctions have produced billions of dollars that will be used to help fund construction of the public safety network.

Buildout of this nationwide network is now set to begin.  States have the option to “opt out” of this system and build their own public safety radio networks, but only if the FCC determines that the state’s proposed network will be interoperable with FirstNet.  At our June meeting, the FCC will vote on the procedures and standards we will use for reviewing a state’s alternative plan—that is, to ensure that these public safety networks remain interoperable.  We are committed to working with FirstNet and all state and local partners to make sure that first responders have the tools they need to communicate seamlessly with each other during emergencies.

The third public safety item responds to issues raised by a recent spike in threatening calls targeting schools and religious organizations.  The FCC’s current rules require voice providers not to reveal blocked Caller ID information or to use that information to allow the person getting a call to contact the caller.  These rules have an important purpose, but they can raise a particular public safety concern. 

Earlier this year, as you may remember, numerous Jewish Community Centers received a number of threatening phone calls.  I’m proud that the FCC swiftly issued a temporary waiver allowing JCCs to work with carriers and law enforcement to identify callers.  But this episode raised the question of whether we need to make permanent changes to our rules.  At our June meeting, the Commission will tackle that question.  Specifically, we’ll consider a proposal to change the rules to ensure that all threatened parties and associated law enforcement personnel have quick access to the information they need to identify and thwart threatening callers. 

Now, while the FCC’s June meeting will be headlined by these public safety items, that’s not all that’s on tap.

  • One of our top priorities remains promoting broadband competition and deployment. Accordingly, we will vote on an order paving the way for the company OneWeb to provide broadband services using satellite technology that holds unique promise to expand Internet access in remote and rural areas.
  • Additionally, the FCC will consider in June a Notice of Inquiry seeking public input on ways to facilitate greater competition and consumer choice for Internet service in apartment complexes, office building, and other so-called “multi-tenant environments.”
  • Consistent with our work to streamline outdated and unnecessary rules, we will consider a proposal to eliminate the annual audit and associated reporting requirement for payphone service providers. (We’re no longer living in the days of The Wire where payphone use was common.)
  • As part of our effort to modernize our rules for the digital age, we are also taking up a Declaratory Ruling that would make clear that the “annual notices” cable operators have to deliver to their subscribers via paper mail may be delivered electronically.
  • And finally, we will be voting on an item from the Commission’s Enforcement Bureau. For law enforcement reasons, we are unable to discuss it publicly before the June 22 meeting.

As we head into summer, millions of Americans will be watching their favorite heroes on the silver screen (paging Wonder Woman), the basketball court (my prediction: Golden State over Cleveland in 7), and elsewhere.  But let’s also remember those less-heralded heroes who make sacrifices every day on our behalf, especially the men and women in law enforcement who put on the uniform and put their lives on the line for us.  During Public Safety Month in June, I’m proud that the FCC will be honoring that commitment.