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Phone industry's Robocall Strike Force not yet ready for battle

Phone industry's Robocall Strike Force not yet ready for battle
Leading telecom and tech companies say they're trying hard to fight robocalls. Federal regulators say they still have a lot of work to do. (Spiderstock / Getty Images)

The phone industry's Robocall Strike Force vowed a couple of months ago to deploy its telecom commandos and end the scourge of robocalls once and for all. So how's that working out?

The strike force met with federal authorities the other day to report on its progress and action plan.

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Turns out there hasn't been much progress. And they still don't have much of a plan.

The head of the Federal Communications Commission, for one, wasn't satisfied.

"We need solutions now," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler told representatives of the 33 telecom and tech companies making up the strike force.

Consumer advocates were less charitable.

"This latest plan is half a loaf, if that," said Maureen Mahoney, policy analyst for Consumers Union. "The work of the strike force is incomplete."

If you're late to the party, Wheeler issued a call in July for phone companies to be more aggressive in blocking robocalls and telemarketers, which he said produced more consumer complaints than any other telecom issue.

In response, AT&T's chief executive, Randall Stephenson, agreed to head what was dubbed the Robocall Strike Force, with the goal being "to bring the industry together to protect consumers from unwanted communications and to rid our communications networks of these unwanted and pernicious calls."

And now they have a battle plan on the table.

It declares that the mission of the strike force "is to accelerate the development and adoption of new tools and solutions to abate the proliferation of illegal and unwanted robocalls" and "to promote greater consumer control over the calls they wish to receive."

However, the strike force's progress report states that "there is no silver bullet to solve the robocalling problem." It says robocallers are a wily bunch and are constantly changing their tactics, and thus "our approach to unwanted and illegal robocall blocking needs to be constantly evolving and adapting."

The rest of the 45-page report is filled with a lot of technical gobbledygook but no rock-solid commitments to specific actions or a specific time frame.

Nor is there a pledge to develop and offer customers free tools similar to Nomorobo for blocking robocalls — something the FCC specifically had sought when the strike force was established.

On the other hand, the report says that "identification of robocalls will require investment in big data analytics and tools." As such, "companies may need to consider how to recover the costs."

Ah, there's the telecom industry we know and love.

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Phone companies implicitly acknowledge they've done a lousy job addressing customers' complaints about marketers' illegal and occasionally fraudulent practices. So the companies plan to stick customers with the cost of cracking down.

Wheeler was having none of it.

"Stopping unwanted calls is as much a business expense as marketing and billing," he said at the recent meeting. "Providing a quality service is a cost of doing business."

I'm not holding my breath. Most phone bills already include a "cost recovery" fee that's just a sneaky way for carriers to dump routine business expenses on customers.

It looks like the strike force wanted to test the commitment of regulators to getting tough on robocalls. Hopefully the companies will now return to the drawing board with, to put it politely, a renewed sense of purpose.

AT&T's Stephenson acknowledged at the meeting that "we still have a lot of work left to do." A company spokeswoman declined to elaborate on his remarks, but AT&T's pending merger with Time Warner seems like a strong incentive for Stephenson to take this effort more seriously.

Along with AT&T, Verizon and other leading telecom firms, the strike force includes tech heavyweights such as Apple, Google and Microsoft.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said the companies need to step up their game. "There are no prizes for participation," she said.

Rosenworcel called on strike force members to "work harder, faster, better."

Basically, these guys need to accomplish two things. First, they have to offer customers an effective way to block robocalls by improving caller ID technology.

As things currently stand, robocallers frequently disguise themselves by "spoofing" their phone numbers, making it appear the call is from a legitimate source, such as a hospital or police station. What's needed is the phone equivalent of an email spam filter.

Second, the strike force has to zero in on the source of robocalls — the callers themselves. This is difficult because these jokers are a slippery bunch. But it's not impossible.

As I wrote when the strike force was first announced, telecom experts say phone companies can develop algorithms capable of scanning their networks and spotting flurries of short-duration calls — a sign of a robocaller's automated dialing system at work.

They also can develop means to track robocallers that try to elude detection by switching from one line to another, and to distinguish between nuisance calls and legitimate communications from schools, utilities and emergency services.

This will be expensive, experts say, running in the millions of dollars. That's why phone companies already are making noises about passing along costs to customers.

So far, the FCC is being supportive of the industry's efforts. Wheeler went out of his way to express appreciation to Stephenson and other telecom bigwigs.

But the next time the Robocall Strike Force convenes for a progress report — expected early next year — officials will need to make clear that their patience has limits if the industry once again presents only half-baked proposals.

And the idea that customers should pay the tab for phone companies preventing misuse of their networks? I can think of a few choice words Wheeler might offer.

They include some of the ones the FCC won't let you say on TV.

David Lazarus' column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5 and followed on Twitter @Davidlaz. Send your tips or feedback to david.lazarus@latimes.com.

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