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Can Telecom Ward Off Robocall Regs?

Carol Wilson

US consumers should start getting relief from the robocall plague in 2019, thanks to an industry-wide effort to better identify legitimate calls. That effort may also forestall regulatory action, although it's not yet certain the industry is moving fast enough for the FCC to let the telecom service providers implement changes on their own.

In multiple responses to a letter from Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai, sent in early November, executives from major telecom operators, cable, wireless and VoIP providers all spelled out company plans to use a combination of technologies now known as SHAKEN/STIR beginning in late 2018 with Comcast, and then including other major operators such as AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) and T-Mobile US Inc. starting in early 2019.

UPDATE/CORRECTION: T-Mobile says it is already ready for SHAKEN/STIR and announced its adoption in early November.

Other companies, including Charter and Sprint, are all promising to test and begin deployment in 2019 as well, but with caveats as to industry readiness to make the technology changes necessary. Operators with more rural service territories and more TDM technology in their networks, including Frontier Communications Corp. (NYSE: FTR) and TDS Telecom , are promising to start authenticating calls via SHAKEN/STIR next year but admit they face other challenges to blocking robocalls.

As part of the broader effort, the industry has set up a Secure Telephone Identity Governance Authority (STI-GA) under the auspices of Alliance for Telecommunications Industry Solutions (ATIS) , to support "the timely deployment of the SHAKEN/STIR protocol and framework." On Tuesday, ATIS announced that former Neustar executive Brent Struthers would be the new director of the STI-GA. This comes after years of industry work within ATIS and the North American Numbering Council and its Call Authentication Trust Anchor Working Group, as well as at the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) .

Just what the regulator ordered?
Just what the regulator ordered?

SHAKEN, which stands for Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs), is a framework which was developed by ATIS in conjunction with the SIP Forum and is being used to implement STIR, or Secure Telephone Identity Revisited, a protocol developed by the IETF to authenticate caller ID information, so consumers know numbers aren't being spoofed.

SHAKEN allows an originating service provider to create a digital signature for each call using cryptography, says Jim McEachern, principal technologist for ATIS and one of those directly involved in developing SHAKEN. That signature includes information about the caller ID and the call, which then travels in-band with that call across whatever networks are required to reach its destination, since most calls traverse multiple interconnected networks.

The inability to authenticate calls that traverse multiple networks is what robocallers have been exploiting, leading to an industry that generated more than 30 billion robocalls in 2017 costing consumers $350 million annually according to the Consumers Union. Robocallers manage to avoid detection and third-party blocking efforts, such as NoMoRobo, by spoofing legitimate numbers and even appearing to be calling from legitimate sites, notably the Internal Revenue Service. Catching them requires being able to determine, in real time, which calls are authentic and which aren't.

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That's the issue that Pai and a group of 35 state attorneys general want the telecom industry to solve more quickly, by making sure non-authentic calls are blocked or, at the very least, flagged for consumers. In his letter to carriers, Pai asked not only what their plans were for deployment but also what was standing in the way of their efforts. If he isn't happy with the responses, the FCC can still choose to act on robocall regulation.

That could take industry control away and actually create future problems, McEachern says.

"We thought about this hard and I think we've got a pretty solid infrastructure in place," he tells Light Reading in an interview. "But you know the bad guys are going to find some weakness somehow, either through social engineering or just flaws, they will find some way to work around the system. And if you had to go through a regulatory hearing process in order to respond to that, you would be three years behind the bad guys forever."

An industry-led initiative under regulatory oversight can spot problems and develop resolutions much faster by implementing best practices or adjusting specifications, if necessary, to deal with issues much faster, he adds.

McEachern, who is retiring later this month, believes Pai and the FCC will be satisfied with the industry's response thus far and not implement heavy-handed regulation, an opinion seconded by Jim Tyrrell, senior product marketing director for Transaction Network Services, which operates a large independent SS7 network and provides numbering, roaming and settlement services for telecom service providers, as well as reputation profiles for phone numbers.

There are still a number of issues to be resolved, they agree, including how to handle calls that are not authenticated via SHAKEN/STIR, what information to give consumers about their incoming calls and how to handle robocalls for legacy TDM traffic.

As more network operators begin to authenticate the calls they originate, things should improve even if everyone isn't carry those signatures across their networks, McEachern says, because the authentication data can improve the analytics behind third-party call blocking solutions such as NoMoRobo, and that will be some immediate relief for consumers. There is also hope for new solutions taking advantage of artificial intelligence, Tyrrell notes.

Next Page: Adopting SHAKEN/STIR

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User Rank: Light Beer
12/13/2018 | 2:55:18 PM
A Swing and a Miss
What is most overlooked is the fabulous opportunity the carriers had to sell a much needed value-added service.  If they had thought that way, it would have happened much, much sooner.  They could have gone from Caller ID to Enhanced Caller ID to Protected Caller ID, and either upsell or bundle.  Some are doing that now on a limited scale, and none are truly taking a consumer-centric approach. 

Instead, AT&T (and others) first denied they could block calls when the FCC had clearly ruled they could.  But that's what happens when the legal team runs the company. 
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/11/2018 | 2:09:42 PM
Make it criminal
There is currently very little deterrence to stop robocalls.  Most states and even the feds have laws that they are not enforcing.  Once you make this a criminal act, some will be deterred as the risk vs. reward has been greatly diminished.  How do you find them?  Well, offer a reward.  As long as the reward is greater than what someone gets paid, the owner runs the risk of being turned in.  It is not like the people who work in these call centers do not know what is really going on.  Take the credit card interest rate scam; it is for American Express, Visa, Mastercard and Discover.  Of those four; only two issue cards directly and the remaining two go through banks or other providers.  So either the people that work for the scammers are really stupid or they just like the paycheck.  Hold them accountable along with the owner.  Once they are treated like the criminals they are, things will start to change.  Treat them like drug dealers and seize assets; let them lose everything from their ill-gotten gains.


The same can be said for the originating carriers as well.  They know full well that their network is being used for these calls and well, they like the money.  Hold them accountable for their failure and all of a sudden, these greedy nuisance VoIP providers will go away.  This is not much different than Cox and Grande can now be held responsible for the piracy of their customers because of their own inaction.
User Rank: Light Sabre
12/10/2018 | 1:45:22 PM
Re: Do your job

Agreed.  I am one that screens every call unless I know the number.


User Rank: Blogger
12/10/2018 | 11:14:24 AM
Do your job
It seems that Pai's principal objective is to avoid regulating the industries his agency is supposed to regulate. The robocall crisis* is a prime example of the reason that Congress gave the FCC the mandate to regulate the phone network. Even though the Tier-1s evidently are willing to "voluntarily" undertake the necessary steps, the solution has to be industry wide and mandatory. SHAKEN/STIR (as I understand it) requires every originating provider to identify and authenticate the originator of every call. All it takes is a few rogue actors to undermine the system. The FCC can't enforce Rules that it refuses to make. 

If Pai et al don't want to be in the business of regulating telecom, they shouldn't be running the telecom regulator. The incoming House is certain to impress that point.


*Not hyperbole. There is at least anecdotal evidence that the flood of robocalls has led the public to stop answering their phones, thereby severely degrading the utility of the service.
User Rank: Light Beer
12/8/2018 | 1:15:05 AM
I think everyone will agree that robocall is one of the most annoying thing that we have been facing since years ago. I personally never answer incoming calls now. 90% of them are coming from telemarketers and scammers who se robocalls. I have just read at https://www.whycall.me/news/consumer-wins-massive-229500-robocall-lawsuit-against-time-warner-cable/ about someone who have won a lawsuit against big company after she gets mltiple robocalls. I think this might be one of the option that we have to fight against these robocallers.
User Rank: Light Beer
12/7/2018 | 5:11:27 PM
Re: Just an Idea
The technology is there to make it easy to see who the originating carrier is but not a standard yet.  That is SIP-T, when it is then ROBO is over.  Until then I answer the calls and put my phone down, ties up their resources and cost them more money.
User Rank: Light Beer
12/7/2018 | 3:32:10 PM
Just an Idea
Until the technology can solve this problem, what if we all started answering these calls and simply saying, "loser"! This will start to overwhelm their call centers with the amount of calls that go through. The percentage of "real callers" will go drastically down, impacting their business model. The call center people will start to quit since they are hearing "loser" all day long. Just a thought. 
User Rank: Light Beer
12/7/2018 | 1:59:54 PM
Re: Spam wars?
Its not the big Telcos making the money its the Lowest Tier carriers doing this, big carriers dont want the head ache of complaints.
User Rank: Light Beer
12/7/2018 | 1:58:00 PM
Its not that difficult ! It's not rocket Science
The Idea of the effort is a Joke, I run a cLEC and we get these calls and they are a pain in the butt!  However, every call can be traced back to the customer who initates the call.  Carriers just need to be able set up a basic email for carrier to foward information about the call that hits their network and forward it back until it gets to the originating carrier, and all carriers should be on that string to see where the buck stops.  Its only a few maybe a dozen carrier sending in ROBO VoIP calls into the network.  In there lays the issue, there is no originating information like you would get with an SS7 call, No originating LRN and no jurisdiction info. These are the two big issues because plain old SIP is used and not SIP-T.  If will all use SIP T the orginating carrier info would be in thier to go to the source. Problem solved.  THen again your dealing with a lot of non technical idiots that are creating layers of crap that cost more money than implementing a standard on SIP-T.
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner,
User Rank: Lightning
12/7/2018 | 1:57:22 PM
Spam wars?
Is it cynical of me to assume this is going to be like the spam wars of the 2000s, where so-called "legitimate businesses" can pay off the telcos to get their robocalls whitelisted, other businesses are blocked, and consumers are still getting hit by robocalls? 
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