AT&T CEO Says He Can’t Deploy Robocall Blockers Without FCC Approval. He’s Wrong

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On his personal phone line, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson blocks unwanted, pre-recorded and auto-dialed robocalls. So why is Darth Randy not making this technology available for all of his customers? He claims it’s because he needs the FCC’s permission to do so, but the FCC says that just isn’t so.

Last week, in a surprisingly candid interview with the Dallas Morning News’ Dave Lieber, Stephenson admitted that he hates robocalls just as much as the rest of us.

“Let’s do a quick audit of Randall’s recent calls,” said the Sith Lord, speaking of himself in the third person. “You see all these numbers that don’t have a name attached to them? Those are robocalls I’m getting. All of those.”

While Stephenson does not describe how he blocks robocalls on his personal line, he says his company — under pressure from the hundreds of thousands of Americans who signed the Consumers Union End Robocalls petition — is looking at possible options for its more than 100 million customers.

“There are some solutions out there,” he said. “One was brought to me a couple of weeks ago. It’s a solution that’s on the handset. I said, ‘Timeout. Can we put it in the network, not the handset?’”

Now here’s where things get a bit confusing. When asked why AT&T isn’t just deploying these solutions — or at least giving subscribers the option to turn the blockers on if they so choose — the CEO points the finger at those pesky regulators in D.C., claiming AT&T needs the FCC’s approval to deploy robo-blockers.

“We don’t go in and just start discriminately blocking calls going to people without their permission, without the appropriate authority,” explained Stephenson. “I don’t want to be on the front page because we blocked somebody’s call, if it was a life-saving call of some kind, right?”

Let’s break down this statement a bit: No one is asking AT&T to just start blocking calls without telling anyone. They just want the ability to use a call-blocker.

Additionally, while services like Nomorobo work by using a user-defined, crowdsourced “blacklist” of suspected bad numbers, they also whitelist numbers for things like emergency services so that urgent calls don’t accidentally get blocked.

In January, Time Warner Cable gave its millions of landline phone customers the option to turn Nomorobo on or off at the click of a button, and Consumerist has learned that Verizon recently launched a similar easy-to-use integration of Nomorobo for its FiOS customers — and all of this was done without having to go through any FCC approval process.

Just to make sure that there wasn’t some sort of robo-blocking vetting process that was going on behind closed doors, we asked the FCC directly about Stephenson’s assertion.

“The FCC has made clear that there are no legal obstacles to carriers offering consumers Robocall-blocking services,” a rep for the Commission tells Consumerist. “The Chairman has repeatedly called on carriers to begin offering these services. We strongly encourage them to do so.”

In the interview, Stephenson said that “There will be rules” coming from the FCC regarding robo-blockers, but thus far the Commission has given no indication that it has any interest or plans in going through the rulemaking process.

The important thing, according to sources familiar with the FCC’s view on this issue, is that AT&T and other carriers make blocking services available, and that they inform subscribers about their options and any limitations these blockers might place on their phone service.

In a statement to Consumerist, a rep for AT&T clarifies what Stephenson really meant to say.

“Last year, the FCC gave us authority to implement technology to allow consumer-initiated robocall blocking. However, there are no technologies currently available that can accurately distinguish illegal robocalls from legitimate calls, which could include emergency calls,” reads the statement. “In fact, many robocallers even spoof legitimate phone numbers, making it even more challenging. As a matter of law, we don’t have permission to block legitimate calls – that is a violation of the Communications Act. We’re continuing our work to find a solution that can identify illegal robocalls 100% of the time. Until then, we cannot risk blocking legitimate calls from consumers. But in the interim, although not a perfect solution, consumers can use apps like Nomorobo to block these calls.”

What AT&T doesn’t mention is that it already offers a call-blocker on landline service… for $8.50/month. It’s limited, in that you can only block 10 numbers, but it also blocks all anonymous callers. Given that legitimate calls may be coming from anonymous numbers, that seems to contradict the idea at AT&T is holding out for some sort of pure 100% no-errors ideal.

Of course, even if AT&T screwed up and deployed a horrible call-blocker that caused you to miss only important calls, you couldn’t sue the company. The 2011 Supreme Court ruling in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion upheld the use of forced arbitration clauses and class-action bans in customer contracts. So not only can’t you take AT&T to court if it breaks the law, you can’t enter into a group arbitration with other AT&T customers.

So when AT&T claims that it only wants to deploy a service that is 100% accurate, remember that this is also the company that also wants you to believe that forced arbitration “benefits consumers.”

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