The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is calling on major telecommunications providers to implement new technologies that promise to block many unwanted and potentially illegal robocalls. On Monday, November 5, 2018, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai sent a sharply-worded letter to the heads of large voice call providers, including AT&T, Charter, Comcast, Cox, Google, Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile, urging the companies to adopt a new call authentication framework – STIR / SHAKEN – within the next year.
FCC Takes Issue With Telecom Providers
In his letters, Pai called out a number of telecom providers for not being serious enough about stopping illegal robocalls. Some providers, Pai says, are “well on their way” to implementing the SHAKEN / STIR system, which would allow the companies to authenticate caller ID information and share it with one another. Chairman Pai thanked AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, Comcast, Bandwidth.com, Cox and Google for their commitments to the framework.
Dragging Their Heels
But other companies have yet to get onboard. Pai sent individual letters, all reproduced on the FCC website, to seven companies who still lack “concrete plans to implement a robust call authentication framework” – CenturyLink, Charter, Frontier, Sprint, TDS Telecom, US Cellular and Vonage. For these companies, Chairman Pai has some questions:
- What is preventing or inhibiting you from signing (authenticating) calls today?
- What is your timeframe for authenticating calls originating on your network?
- What tests have you run on deployment, and what are the results?
- What steps have taken to work with vendors to deploy a robust call authentication framework?
- How often are you an intermediate provider, and do you intend to transmit signed calls from other providers?
- How do you intend to combat and stop originating and terminating illegally spoofed calls on your network?
- The Commission has already authorized voice providers to block certain illegally spoofed calls. If the Commission were to move forward with authorizing voice providers to block all unsigned calls or improperly signed calls, how would you ensure the legitimate calls of your customers are completed properly?
Is SHAKEN / STIR The Right Solution?
Many telecom providers have expressed reservations about the SHAKEN / STIR system, citing the framework’s expense and limitations. In filings with the FCC, T-Mobile pointed out that SHAKEN / STIR will only be able to “provide a positive affirmation of the source of a given call. It cannot provide confirmation of the opposite – that is, that a call is definitively ‘bad’ or fraudulent. This is particularly true where calls are carried by international providers that do not participate in SHAKEN / STIR and send calls to the United States.”
This is a common theme in criticism of SHAKEN / STIR. The system only works if both originating carriers and completing, or receiving, carriers participate. Without universal adoption, the protocol could fall short. Considering that many, if not most, illegal robocalls originate from overseas, where the SHAKEN / STIR framework isn’t even being contemplated, this is a particularly pressing problem.
Chairman Pai Threatens Action
Despite these shortcomings, Chairman Pai is threatening companies who don’t get on board. “I am calling on those falling behind to catch up,” he wrote. “If it does not appear that this system is on track to get up and running next year, then we will take action to make sure that it does.” No word yet on what kind of “action” the Commission could take.
The FCC has been pushing telecom providers to take on robocalls in a big way for over a year. STIR / SHAKEN is the crown jewel in the agency’s cap, an industry-wide call authentication protocol. While the framework won’t eliminate robocalls entirely, it could have a major impact on those calls that look like they’re coming from your own area code.
What Problem Does SHAKEN / STIR Fix?
These “spoofed” caller ID calls, in which callers disguise their true caller ID information, are only possible because telecom providers don’t yet have a good way to authenticate and certify where a call is coming from in the first place. Particularly difficult is the question of authenticating calls that pass between multiple different telecom providers. At present, none of these telecom companies have a single, standard “language” in which to communicated. SHAKEN / STIR promises to become that language, allowing telecom providers to share information on whether or not they think a call’s caller ID information is legit.
Chairman Pai explains it this way:
“Under the SHAKEN / STIR framework, calls traveling through interconnected phone networks would be ‘signed’ as legitimate by originating carriers and validated by other carriers before reaching consumers. The framework digitally validates the handoff of phone calls passing through the complex web of networks, allowing the phone company of the consumer receiving the call to verify that a call is from the person supposedly making it.”
“Combatting illegal robocalls is our top consumer priority at the FCC,” Pai said. “That’s why we need call authentication to become a reality – it’s the best way to ensure that consumers can answer their phones with confidence.”
FCC Calls Out Business Voice Providers, Too
Two days after sending personalized letters to America’s biggest telecommunications players, Chairman Pai followed up with a flurry of similar missives to business voice providers who he says aren’t on board with “industry robocalls to trace scam robocalls that originate or pass through their networks. 382 Communications, Global Voicecom, R Squared Telecom, Thinq, IP Link Telecom, Talkie Communications, XCast Labs and TouchTone Communications all got letters of their own.