Springing Forward for the Public Interest: The FCC’s March Agenda

On March 23, the Federal Communications Commission will hold its monthly “open meeting,” which is the public session at which Commissioners vote on various proposals and orders. I wanted to let you know what we’ll be voting on and why each matter is important.

But first, a note on process. As you may remember, I started a pilot project last month to bring more openness and transparency to our agency. The FCC publicly released, three weeks in advance of the February 23 meeting, a proposal on Next Generation TV standard and an order on AM radio. Both the proposal and order were adopted unanimously at the February meeting.

I’m pleased to report that the initial stage of the pilot project was a success! We received overwhelmingly positive feedback from the public. Accordingly, today the FCC is expanding the pilot project. We’re publicly releasing the text of all six matters that will be considered at our March open meeting. Allowing anyone, anywhere to see these documents publicly is another step towards shedding more sunlight on the FCC’s operations. After March 23, I expect that we’ll be in a position to fully evaluate this pilot project and establish permanent procedures for the release of meeting items.

Turning from process to substance, our March agenda is a full one. As I said, the FCC will be voting on six items. (One-pagers describing each of these items in greater detail will soon be made available on the Commission’s website.) Topping the list will be a proposal to combat the top source of consumer complaints to the FCC: robocalls.

We’ve all been there. You’re eating dinner or in the middle of watching your favorite show and you’re disturbed by the ring of a pre-recorded call. These calls are not just a nuisance; they’re often scams. For example, outlaw operators are posing as IRS agents and threatening people, particularly older Americans and other vulnerable populations, that if they don’t send them money, law enforcement will come after them.

There are rules on the books prohibiting these unwanted calls, but scofflaws are finding creative ways to avoid getting caught. When U.S. consumers are receiving 2.4 billion robocalls a month, we need to do more. And by “we,” I mean the FCC, collaborating with the private sector. I’m grateful for the company leaders and consumer groups who teamed up in 2016 to form the Robocall Strike Force, which has been working to come up with solutions to this growing problem.

One of the issues the Task Force has singled out is caller ID spoofing. Through spoofing, someone calling from one number (555–1212) changes caller ID information to make it appear as though he’s calling from a different number (867–5309). Scammers and spammers use spoofing to disguise their identity, to trick consumers into answering unwanted calls, and to hide from authorities. And under the FCC’s current rules, which generally prevent call-blocking, there is not much that carriers can do to stop this.

This must change. Under my proposal, the FCC would give providers greater leeway to block spoofed robocalls. Specifically, they could block calls that purport to be from unassigned or invalid phone numbers (there’s a database that keeps track of all phone numbers, and many of them aren’t assigned to a voice service provider or aren’t otherwise in use). There is no reason why any legitimate caller should be spoofing an unassigned or invalid phone number. It’s just a way for scammers to evade the law.

The American people have long made it clear — and industry, consumer groups, and government are unified behind them — that they want unwanted robocalls to stop. This month, we’ll hopefully take an important step toward combating this scourge.

Now, to our second item. Whereas robocalls are ever-present, the problem of contraband cellphones in prisons — that is, cellphones illegally being used by inmates — is generally out-of-sight and too easily ignored. But the need for action is just as clear.

With then-Governor Nikki Haley (left) and Captain Robert Johnson (center) at South Carolina field hearing.

As a Commissioner, I’ve visited correctional institutions to learn first-hand about this issue. I’ve been to a maximum security prison in Georgia and a minimum security unit in Massachusetts, among others. At each facility, I’ve heard about the threat to public safety these devices pose. They’ve been used to run drug operations from inside prisons. They’ve been used for phone scams. And most seriously, they’ve been used for violent purposes, including the targeting of prison guards and witnesses in pending court cases. Indeed, in South Carolina, I personally met Captain Robert Johnson, who was shot six times in his home as the result of a hit ordered through a contraband cellphone, but thankfully survived.

Contraband cellphones are also used to blackmail inmates’ relatives and ultimately hurt inmates. In one case, a Georgia inmate’s wife got a text message demanding $1,000. When she couldn’t pay the money, she received a picture of her husband with the word “RAT” carved into his forehead. To give you a sense of the scale of this issue, Georgia officials seized over 8,300 illegal cell phones in a recent year. That’s just one year’s haul in one state.

In 2013, the FCC started to consider rules to spur the development of technological solutions to fight this problem. It’s high time to take action on that record, which is fully complete and robust. So the FCC will vote on reforms to facilitate the use of radio-based technologies to detect and block the use of contraband phones in these prisons and jails. And I’m asking my colleagues to allow public input on other solutions for addressing this pressing problem, including disabling devices and geo-fencing.

Third, the FCC will help Americans with disabilities have better access to communications services. Video Relay Services are a vital real-time communications tool for deaf and hard-of-hearing Americans. For 15 years, VRS has enabled deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals to call friends, family members, and others using American Sign Language (ASL) and a videophone, and to have their calls interpreted from signs to voice and vice versa. We’ve heard from advocates about the need for improvements to VRS service. At our March meeting, I hope my colleagues will agree with me on addressing that need. For example, we’ll seek to authorize a trial of specialized interpreters (say, those with particular skill in interpreting medical or technical terms). We’ll also try to help those with disabilities comparison shop for VRS providers. And we’ll aim to make video phone numbers available to hearing people who know ASL, so they can have direct-dialed video calls with deaf and hard-of-hearing consumers. These and other steps would better ensure that deaf and hard-of-hearing individuals have service that is functionally equivalent to voice services available to hearing individuals.

Rounding out the March agenda will be new rules that will give cellular service providers greater flexibility to provide customers advanced broadband services; a plan to eliminate outdated reporting requirements for providers of international telecommunications services; and an order that would for the first time expand the Commission’s channel-sharing rules outside the context of the incentive auction, giving low power TV and TV translator stations more options to stay in business and continue broadcasting essential news and information to the public.

I look forward to collaborating with my colleagues on the important issues that are teed up for the FCC’s March meeting. From helping protect Americans from unwanted robocalls to stopping the crime that results from inmates’ use of contraband cellphones to aiding those with disabilities who simply wish to communicate more easily, we will be working hard to advance the public interest.

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