Hate those robocall polls? The FCC is cracking down

In the years since the federal "Do Not Call" registry, there's been a big rise in the number of robocalls -- automated and recorded calls and texts that barrage your phone repeatedly. Judy Woodruff interviews Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, about why the FCC is giving companies more power to block them at consumer request, plus subsidies for broadband internet.

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    It's been more than a decade since the federal government first came up with a do not call registry to block unwanted phone calls. That move had a major impact initially. But in the years since, there's been a big rise in the number of robocalls people get, those automated and recorded phone calls and texts that repeatedly go to your phone.

    The Federal Communications Commission is now giving phone companies more power to block or prevent robocalls if consumers request it.

    Tom Wheeler is the chairman of the FCC, and he joins me now.

    And welcome back to the program.

  • TOM WHEELER, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission:

    Hello, Judy.


    So how is this rule different than the previous one having to do with robocalls?


    Well, the original rule is a result of a 1991 act of Congress. And 24 years ago, the world was a little different in terms of technology.

    The people who were making the calls that interrupted your dinner at that point in time literally were sitting down and dialing. And that technology, that approach got replaced by new technology that's computerized, like everything else. So, they just feed a list of numbers in and all of a sudden a list of calls get made.

    And our rules didn't keep pace with that, so that people were arguing that they had a legal right to do this. And we just said simply, stop. The consumer needs to be the one who is in charge. The consumer needs to give consent that they want to be called, or if they are called and haven't given consent, to remove that consent by saying, don't call me anymore, or by calling their phone company and saying, I don't want to get these calls.


    What about the argument from some companies out there who say, well, this is preventing us from doing legitimate phone calling, that this is really reaching too far?


    Well, the key to legitimacy is that the consumer wants to be contacted. Now, we have got a couple of exceptions in the rule.

    For instance, if your bank discovers a bank fraud, they can call you automatically. If your hospital or doctor says, oh, there's a medical emergency, they can call you automatically. But, basically, it comes down to, do you consent that you want to be called? You ought to be in control.


    One of the other questions that's been raised out there has to do with politics and public opinion polling.

    And the polls — people who do those polls say, this is a legitimate part of public policy-making. We need to know what the American people are thinking. And they're saying this is going to be much harder to do that.


    Well, the whole polling business has been evolving. Cell phones started it off, when — when folks moved to cell phones, and you couldn't get those numbers and how do you sample that group?

    And I think that this is an evolutionary process for that polling business.


    Tom Wheeler, another initiative the FCC voted on last week has to do with giving a subsidy to low-income individual, families to make it easier for them to connect to the Internet. How would that work?


    Well, again, this is something that goes back in time as well.

    During the Reagan administration, a decision was made that there should be subsidies for landline phone service, so that everybody can call 911. And then, during the second Bush administration, that was expanded to cell phones.

    And what we're doing is twofold. One, we're cleaning up some of the problems that were in the design of the previous program that frankly led to some fraud and abuse. And, secondly, we're saying that those programs were in an era when a voice telephone call was the key to communicating.

    And, today, the key — excuse me — is broadband. You can't apply for veterans' benefits or get a job or do your homework unless you have broadband access in your home. And so how do we migrate from what was good in the 20th century to what's necessary in the 21st?


    Criticism out there, this is a program that has been accused of having fraud involved in it, having waste. The government's own Government Accountability Office has said this. How do you address that?


    So, one of the things that we have been doing for the last six years is a serious overhaul.

    But the problem with — the program was designed with serious flaws in it. For instance, there should have been from the outset a database that says, let's make sure that there's only one person in a home who is getting this benefit. That was never done and put in place until the last 12 months.

    There were design problems, saying, here, you shouldn't have had the people who were receiving the benefits, the companies receiving the benefits certifying the recipients. That's an invitation. That's the fox guarding the henhouse. We're going to change that.


    Another question that's been raised is, this is a subsidy, but it's a small subsidy. And Internet access costs a lot now. People expect the cost may go up. How do you know this is going to be enough of a subsidy to help people who really need that help to connect…




    I think what we are going to do is, we're going to find out through the program itself. But I think that there is a serious buying opportunity in here. You know, I just got a notice on my cell phone saying that I had run over, and they were going to charge me $15 for another gig of data, $15 for a gig. OK.

    Now let's say that I can band millions of customers together and not have some of the costs and overhead. Could I go to the companies and say, hey, would you sell me that for $9 instead? I think there may be some opportunities there. And that's what we're going to try and do.


    Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, overseeing some changes, thank you.


    Thank you, Judy.

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