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Twelve large telecom companies and the attorneys general of 50 states and the District of Columbia announced yesterday an agreement on eight voluntary principles that the companies will adopt to combat illegal and unwanted robocalls.  The announcement comes as regulators, telecom companies, and legislators continue to grapple with a worsening robocall problem that has become a significant concern for consumers, generating more complaints at the Federal Communications Commission and the Federal Trade Commission than any other topic.

Both the Senate and House have passed robocall bills that have yet to be reconciled to produce a bill both houses of Congress can agree upon.  In the meantime, the states are attempting to take the lead by working with telecom companies to establish what are effectively best practices.  These include:

  1. Making available free call-blocking and labeling tools to customers, and implementing free call blocking at the network level (network-level call blocking does not require any action from the consumer).
  2. Implementing STIR/SHAKEN, a technology used to provide authentication that calls are coming from a valid source.
  3. Monitoring network traffic for patterns consistent with robocalls.
  4. Investigating suspicious calls and calling patterns by, for example, initiating a traceback investigation or verifying that the commercial customer owns or is authorized to use the Caller ID number.
  5. Confirming the identity of new commercial VoIP customers by collecting information such as physical location.
  6. Requiring other telephone companies with which they contract to cooperate in identifying the source of suspected illegal robocalls.
  7. Working with law enforcement to trace robocalls by identifying a single point of contact for traceback requests, and responding to such requests as soon as possible.
  8. Communicating with state attorneys general to keep them apprised of trends in illegal robocalling and potential additional solutions to combat such robocalls.

For context and information on other recent actions taken to combat illegal and unwanted robocalls, read our post from June, where we discussed the FCC’s decision to permit voice service providers to implement call-blocking programs for subscribers on an opt-out basis.  Robocalling finally appears to have achieved the status of Public Enemy Number One, with Congress, states, and federal agencies all working to block the flood of calls inundating the public.

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The availability of broadband Internet service in apartment buildings, condominiums, and office buildings, or what the FCC calls multiple tenant environments (MTE), was the subject of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) and Declaratory Ruling released on Friday of last week. Prior FCC decisions have attempted to strike a balance between promoting competitive access to tenants and preserving adequate incentives for the initial service providers to deploy, maintain, and upgrade infrastructure. For example, the Commission prohibits cable providers and telecommunications carriers from entering into contracts with MTEs that grant a single provider exclusive access to the MTE, but permits exclusive marketing agreements.

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For many consumers, answering a phone call from an unknown number has effectively turned into a gamble. Is it a potential new client? A medical emergency? Or, more likely, is it an incredible offer-to-stay-at-a-Caribbean-resort-of-your-choosing-please-hold-for-a-representative?

Not surprisingly, no issue generates more complaints at the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission than robocalls – according to one estimate there were 47 billion illegal and unwanted calls in 2018. In response, the FCC last week released a Declaratory Ruling and Third Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (CG Docket No. 17-59, WC Docket No. 17-97) clarifying that voice service providers may offer consumers call-blocking tools through an opt-out process rather than an opt-in basis, as is typically done today. The FCC issued this clarification to address concerns that the majority of consumers are not requesting available call-blocking services.

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The FCC will take a number of significant actions in the final months of 2018 to facilitate the development of 5G, the fifth generation of wireless cellular technology. First, at its October meeting tomorrow, it will vote on making a portion of mid-band spectrum (2.5 to 4.2 GHz) available for 5G use.  Second, it will launch in November the first of two high-band 5G spectrum auctions scheduled for 2018.  Now is therefore a good time to take a look at what 5G is, and what impact it promises to have.

Looking back, the primary benefit of the transition from 3G to 4G was a significant speed boost, which allowed users to, among other things, stream YouTube and upload videos to social media platforms like Instagram without much waiting.  Once implemented, 5G is expected to deliver download speeds anywhere from 10-100 times faster than 4G, with speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second.  5G users will also experience significantly less latency, i.e., the time between when you click on a link and when the network responds.  While 4G latency is about 9 milliseconds, mature 5G systems will reduce latency to around 1 millisecond.

Mature 5G networks will use high-band spectrum (24 GHz and above), which is capable of transmitting significantly more data than 4G, but is limited to much shorter distances.  4G towers currently deliver service for up to 10 miles, while high-band 5G towers will only deliver service for up to 1,000 feet (about 3 football fields).

In addition, high-band 5G spectrum has a shorter wavelength than spectrum used for 4G, making it more difficult for these signals to penetrate solid objects such as walls and windows.  To overcome the distance and signal penetration challenges, 5G will require vast networks of small-cell sites located on a diverse array of real estate platforms, with the small-cells anchored by larger cell towers.  To streamline the deployment of small-cells, the FCC in March adopted new rules to reduce regulatory impediments to building out small-cell infrastructure, and in September adopted rules requiring state and local governments to approve or deny small-cell applications within prescribed time periods.  Not surprisingly, the new rules are unpopular with local governments, who object to any federal interference with their local site review processes.

There are numerous potential innovations and business models that can utilize 5G’s faster speeds, lower latency, and increased connection capacity.  Most agree that 5G will deliver seamless 4K video streaming and instant downloads of large files, but it could also dramatically change how users, including machines, access the Internet.  Currently, the primary option for residential and enterprise broadband customers is cable or fiber.  With speeds of up to 20 gigabits per second (and no need for wire infrastructure), 5G could disrupt the delivery of fixed Internet access as we know it.

5G will also allow the Internet of Things to flourish.  Specifically, it will allow vastly more “things” to connect to cell sites and remain connected to the Internet without the need to connect through smartphones or Wi-Fi.  4G can connect about 2,000 devices per square kilometer, while 5G will connect about one million over the same area.  For example, 5G could facilitate thousands of driverless cars in the same city talking to each other to coordinate efficient traffic flow without the need for passengers to open an app on their phone, or even to have a phone.

Another potentially transformative use of 5G is remote medicine.  For example, given the high speed and low latency of 5G, medical procedures could be performed using robot arms controlled by doctors in a different part of the country or world, harnessing almost instantaneous data transmission and lowering geographic barriers to treatment.  Similarly, augmented and virtual reality gaming, shopping, and other experiences should blossom under 5G.

Rollout of 5G will be gradual.  Following pilot programs in 2018 in select cities, wireless carriers are expected to launch the first iterations of widespread 5G networks in the United States in 2019.  5G-enabled smartphones are also expected to be released in 2019.  The first 5G networks will likely use low (600 to 900 MHz) and mid-band (2.5 to 4.2 GHz) spectrum already possessed by wireless carriers, rather than the high-band spectrum that will make up the majority of spectrum auctioned by the FCC for 5G use.  As a result, initial 5G networks will only scratch the surface of 5G’s potential, delivering speeds ranging from 10% faster than 4G to three times as fast.  Mature iterations of 5G networks that use high-band spectrum are expected to arrive in 2-4 years.

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Toll free calling began in 1967, with the introduction of the 800 toll free code. It remains a frequently used communications tool, even in the Internet age, as new toll-free applications are developed, including the capability to send text messages to certain toll-free numbers. Yesterday, the FCC released a Report and Order that made several innovative changes to the toll free number marketplace.

First, the FCC revised its rules to permit the use of auctions to assign toll free numbers. Since 1998, the FCC has used a “first-come, first-served” approach, but now asserts that the times have changed such that flexibility in the form of auctions is necessary to meet the statutory requirement that toll free numbers be allocated “on an equitable basis.”

Specifically, the FCC states that the first-come, first-served approach has “rewarded actors that have invested in systems to increase the chances that their choices of toll free numbers are received first.” It also states that assigning numbers at no cost “has allowed accumulation of numbers without ensuring those numbers are being put to their most efficient use.”

The FCC will not waste any time using its new auction authority. The 833 toll free code, which was opened in 2017, currently has 17,000 “mutually exclusive” numbers. Mutually exclusive numbers are those subject to multiple requests. The FCC has established the 833 Auction to sell the rights to these numbers.

The Report and Order also revises FCC rules to allow a secondary market for toll free numbers purchased in an auction. Currently, FCC rules prevent three types of conduct that make a secondary market infeasible: (1) “brokering,” which is the selling of a toll free number by a private entity for a fee; (2) “hoarding,” which is the “acquisition by a toll free subscriber . . . of more toll free numbers than the toll free subscriber intends to use for the provision of toll free service;” and (3) “warehousing,” where toll free numbers are reserved without having an actual toll free subscriber for whom the numbers are being reserved.

The FCC explained that a secondary market for toll free numbers assigned via auction is desirable because it “permit[s] subscribers to legally obtain numbers which they value.” It further explained that a secondary market promotes efficient operation of an auction by allowing the purchase or sale of numbers in response to the outcome of the auction, and “limits pre-auction costs associated with estimating which—and how many—numbers a bidder may win.” Also, with a nod to speculators, it explained that a secondary market “encourages value-creating entities to promote efficiency by procuring rights to numbers with an intent to sell those rights to other interested subscribers.”

The rule changes established in the Report and Order will go into effect 30 days after publication in the Federal Register.

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The first 911 call was made 50 years ago, long before wireless phones, texting, and Internet calling were used for everyday communications. Congress and the FCC regularly propose and adopt laws and regulations to keep pace with ever-changing technology. Those efforts continue today with the release by the FCC of a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (“NPRM”) to implement two bills recently adopted by Congress to improve 911 emergency calling.

The first, Kari’s Law, requires multi-line telephone systems (“MLTS”) in the United States to allow users to dial 911 directly, without having to dial a “9” or any other prefix to reach an outside line. The law was enacted in February in honor of a Texas woman who was fatally stabbed in a hotel room by her estranged husband in 2013. The woman’s nine-year-old daughter was in the room at the time and repeatedly tried dialing 911, but did not know that an extra “9” was needed to reach an outside line.

Though the focus here was on hotel phone services, the application to MLTS makes the impact much broader. MLTS are telephone systems used in settings such as office buildings, campuses, and hotels. Kari’s Law also requires that such systems transmit a notification to an appropriate on-site or third-party contact, such as a front desk or security office, when a 911 call is made.

Under the proposed rules, the direct dialing requirement would be mandatory for “persons engaged in the business of manufacturing, importing, selling, or leasing MLTS, as well as persons engaged in the business of installing, managing, or operating MLTS.” The notification requirement would mandate that a “person engaged in the business of installing, managing, or operating MLTS shall, in installing, managing, or operating the system, configure it to provide a notification that a 911 call has been placed by a caller on the MLTS system.” The notification would be required to include, at a minimum, the following information: (1) that the 911 call has been made; (2) a valid callback number; and (3) the caller’s location. In addition, to ensure timely notifications, the FCC proposes that notifications be transmitted at the same time as the 911 call.

The statutorily mandated compliance date of Kari’s Law is February 16, 2020, and only applies to MLTS that are “manufactured, imported, offered for first sale or lease, first sold or leased, or installed” after that date. Other MLTS are grandfathered from compliance.

The NPRM also proposes rules to implement RAY BAUM’S Act, which was enacted in March and requires that the FCC conduct a proceeding that considers adopting rules that require “dispatchable location” be transmitted to 911 call centers, regardless of the technological platform used. Dispatchable location is defined in the NPRM as “the street address of the calling party, and additional information such as room number, floor number, or similar information necessary to adequately identify the location of the calling party.” Currently, when a 911 call is made in an MLTS environment such as a large campus or hotel, the location may be included in the information sent to the 911 call center, but that location may be the site’s main entrance or an administrative office and not the precise location of the caller.

Under the proposed rules, the transmission of a dispatchable location would be required for MLTS, fixed telephone service, interconnected Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) services, and Telecommunications Relay Service. The FCC seeks comment on the technical feasibility of the requirement, a comparison of the costs and benefits, and whether the requirement should be extended to any other 911-capable services, such as outbound-only VoIP. The proposed compliance date is February 16, 2020, to coincide with the compliance date of Kari’s Law.

Comment on the FCC’s proposals will be due 45 days after the NPRM’s publication in the Federal Register, with reply comments due 30 days after that date.

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Toll-free telephone numbers celebrated their 50th birthday this year (frankly, without much fanfare). These numbers allow callers to reach businesses without being charged for the call. When long distance calling was expensive, these numbers were enticing marketing tools used by businesses to encourage customer calls and provide a single number for nationwide customer service—for example, hotel, airline or car rental reservations.

Toll-free numbers are most valuable to businesses when they are easy to remember because they spell a word (1-877-DENTIST) or have a simple dialing pattern (1-855-222-2222). Like all telephone numbers, however, the FCC considers toll-free numbers to be a public resource, not owned by any single person, business or telephone company. Toll-free numbers are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis, primarily by telecommunications carriers known as Responsible Organizations. The FCC even has rules that prohibit hoarding (keeping more than you need) or selling toll-free numbers.

But the rules will change if the FCC adopts its recent proposal to assign toll-free numbers by auction as it prepares to open access to its new “833” toll-free numbers. The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking issued last week proposes to auction off approximately 17,000 toll-free numbers for which there have been competing requests. The proceeds of these auctions would then be used to reduce the costs of administering toll-free numbers.

The NPRM also contemplates revising the current rules to promote the development of a secondary market for toll-free numbers. This would allow subscribers to reassign toll-free numbers to other businesses for a fee (think 1-800-STUBHUB!). The FCC suggests this would promote economic efficiencies, as the number would presumably be better utilized by a business owner willing to pay for it than by the company that merely happened to claim it first.

The proposed rules are not without controversy. Some toll-free numbers are used to promote health, safety and other public interest goals (e.g., 1-800-SUICIDE). The NPRM seeks comments on whether toll-free numbers used by governmental or certain nonprofit organizations should be exempt from the auction process. There are also questions about whether the expected demand for the 17,000 new numbers will erode if claiming a number is no longer free.

Comments in this proceeding will be due 30 days after the NPRM is published in the Federal Register, with replies due 30 days after that. If you are interested in filing comments, you can reach us at 1-888-387-5714 Call: 1-888-387-5714.  After all, it’s a toll-free call.

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Imagine dialing 911 and hearing an automated voice tell you that what you have dialed is not a valid number; or reaching a 911 call center only to have emergency personnel dispatched to the wrong location. In response to such problems, the FCC recently released a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) asking a broad range of questions about the capability of enterprise-based communications systems (ECS)—internal phone systems used in places like office buildings, campuses and hotels—to provide access for 911 calls.

According to the FCC, certain of these systems may not support direct 911 dialing, may not have the capability to route calls to the appropriate 911 call center, or may not provide accurate information on the caller’s location. The NOI seeks public comment on consumer expectations regarding the ability to access 911 call centers when calling from an ECS, and seeks ways, including regulation if needed, to improve the capabilities of ECS to provide direct access for 911 calls.

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The FCC voted unanimously yesterday to adopt a Notice of Inquiry (“NOI”) that may have a profound impact on the delivery of communications services in residential and commercial buildings, shopping malls and other multiple tenant environments (“MTEs”). This proceeding will revisit FCC rules and policies developed during the last 17 years, focusing on whether changes need to be made to enhance broadband deployment and consumer choice.  Building owners and managers, communications service providers, and tenants all have a stake in the outcome of this inquiry.

In a nutshell, current FCC policies favor competitive access by telecom and video service providers (with some exceptions), and prohibit exclusive contracts between service providers and building owners that would limit such access. These rules also cover access to in-building wiring and the conduits and rights-of-way within these properties that are owned or controlled by the service providers.   The rules apply to regulated service providers because the FCC generally lacks jurisdiction over building owners and managers.

The most recent FCC order, issued in 2010, approved the use of exclusive marketing and bulk billing arrangements between video providers and building owners. Exclusive marketing arrangements give video providers the exclusive right to market services to residents in a building.  Bulk billing arrangements permit the video provider to serve each resident of the building, usually at a significant discount from the retail rate.  The billing for services is often included within the rent, whether the resident uses the services or contracts with another service provider.

The FCC initiated this proceeding in response to allegations from fixed and mobile broadband service providers that they face challenges in expanding their service footprint because of MTEs with exclusive contracts. There are also arguments that state regulations intended to encourage competitive access actually hinder the ability to provide competitive services. In one pending proceeding, a group of service providers has asked the FCC to preempt an ordinance recently adopted by the City of San Francisco requiring building owners to give competing service providers access to existing wiring upon request from a resident, which the complaining service providers and many building owners contend will deter investment in the communications infrastructure of new buildings and is impractical because of space limitations in many older buildings.

Unlike the earlier proceedings which were focused on specific markets (telecommunications or video services) or types of buildings (resident or commercial), the NOI will cover all services and all types of MTEs. Indeed, for the purpose of this proceeding, MTEs include both commercial and residential premises such as apartment and condominium buildings, shopping malls, gated communities, mobile home parks, garden apartments and other centrally managed residential real estate developments, or any multi-unit premise occupied by two or more distinct units.  Most buildings are covered by this proceeding.

Some of the specific questions on which the FCC seeks comment include:

  1. Whether there are state and local regulations that may inhibit broadband deployment and competition within MTEs;
  2. Whether the FCC should revisit its decision approving exclusive marketing and bulk billing arrangements;
  3. Whether revenue sharing agreements, exclusive wiring arrangements or other types of contractual provisions are affecting broadband competition within MTEs;
  4. Whether there are statutory or jurisdictional considerations that should guide the FCC’s actions in this proceeding; and
  5. Whether the proposed reclassification of broadband internet access as an information service will impact the FCC’s legal authority to address broadband deployment within MTEs.

Comments in this proceeding will be due July 24, 2017 and reply comments will be due August 22, 2017.   The NOI process is a first step toward the development of new rules.  Once the NOI comment cycle is completed, the FCC may issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking proposing rule changes, requiring another round of comments before new rules could be adopted.

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Robocalls and telemarketing calls are reliably the top source of consumer complaints received by the FCC.  Despite the good intentions of the 1991 Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA), FCC decisions implementing the TCPA, and the collective efforts of the telecom industry, there has been little relief from these unwanted calls—particularly at dinner time.  More problematic is that an increasing number of these calls use false (or spoofed) Caller ID to perpetrate scams designed to trick call recipients into believing the call is coming from the Internal Revenue Service, law enforcement, computer support, or a credit card company.

The FCC is now making another attempt to reduce unwanted and sometimes fraudulent telemarketing calls and robocalls.  In a draft Notice of Proposed Rulemaking and Notice of Inquiry circulated March 2nd and to be considered formally at the next FCC Open Meeting on March 23rd, the FCC is proposing to adopt rules that would allow voice service providers (including wireline, wireless and VoIP providers) to block spoofed calls in certain circumstances. Continue reading →