Ajit Pai's FCC gives carriers the option to block text messages

The agency approves new rules to help phone companies combat spam texts. But opponents have censorship concerns.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
4 min read
FCC Holds Vote On Repeal Of Net Neutrality Rules

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai speaks to members of the media after a commission meeting Wednesday.

Alex Wong / Getty Images

The Federal Communications Commission said it's getting tough on text message spam by clarifying that phone companies can block unwanted texts.

At its monthly meeting Wednesday, the Republican-led agency voted 3-1 to classify SMS text messages as a so-called Title I information service under the Telecom Act. The three Republicans on the FCC, which voted to adopt the classification, said this would allow phone companies to block spam text messages.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said the new classification would empower wireless providers to stop unwanted text messages.

"The FCC shouldn't make it easier for spammers and scammers to bombard consumers with unwanted texts," he said during the meeting. "And we shouldn't allow unwanted messages to plague wireless messaging services in the same way that unwanted robocalls flood voice services."

But he said that's what would happen if the FCC were to classify text messages as a Title II telecommunications service under the law.   

The one Democrat on the FCC, Jessica Rosenworcel disagrees. She warned that the FCC is misleading the public about what the new classification will actually do.

"Today's decision offers consumers no new ability to prevent robotexts," she said."It simply provides that carriers can block our text messages and censor the very content of those messages themselves."

She said the FCC did the same thing to the internet last year when it repealed Obama-era net neutrality rules.

"That means on the one-year anniversary of the FCC's misguided net neutrality decision -- which gave your broadband provider the power to block websites and censor online content -- this agency is celebrating by expanding those powers to also include your text messages," she added.

The new classification is bad news for cloud-based phone service Twilio, which asked the FCC in 2015 to adopt stricter rules to prevent phone companies from blocking its service. That petition has now been denied. Twilio said the decision was not unexpected and the company will remain "laser focused on making sure that consumers receive all the text messages -- and indeed, all the communications -- they want to receive, while being shielded from unwanted communications."

Several lawmakers oppose Wednesday's reclassification. In a letter sent to the FCC on Friday, nine Democratic US senators and Vermont's Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent, said that the reclassification would allow phone companies to "block any text message they wish" and would allow these companies to hike rates to competing businesses trying to reach customers.

The wireless industry's lobbying group CTIA applauded the move.

"We commend Chairman Pai and the FCC for protecting consumers from an avalanche of messaging spam and allowing them to continue to benefit from a flourishing and competitive messaging ecosystem," Scott Bergmann, senior vice president for regulatory affairs at CTIA, said in a statement.

But opponents of the measure said it's another example of Pai putting companies ahead of consumers.

"No one should mistake today's action as an effort to help consumers limit spam and robotexts," said Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge. "There is a reason why carriers are applauding while more than 20 consumer protection advocates -- along with 10 senators -- have cried foul."

The FCC voted on several other items at Wednesday's meeting.

New reassigned number database

The FCC voted to create a single, comprehensive database of reassigned phone numbers to help companies avoid making robocalls to consumers who don't want the receive those calls and to ensure that customers who do sign up for automated calls get them.

The database will help insulate companies from liability under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act when they inadvertently call reassigned numbers.

Faster speeds for rural broadband

The agency also voted to raise the minimum rural broadband speed standard to 25 Mbps, which is more than double the current rate requirement. This will ensure that broadband providers receiving federal subsidies build networks that meet this standard for download speeds. The increased standard will only apply to new networks. However, the FCC plans to provide different incentives to ISPs to increase speeds of existing networks.

Rules set for next spectrum auction for 5G

The FCC set rules for the next auction of wireless spectrum that can be used for 5G services. The auction of millimeter wave spectrum in the 37 GHz, 39 GHz and 47 GHz bands is scheduled for 2019.

The FCC is currently auctioning spectrum in the 28 GHz band that will be used for 5G. This auction kicked off on Nov. 14 and by Dec. 6 it had raised around $600 million. Once that auction concludes, the FCC will begin auctioning licenses in the 24 GHz spectrum band.

Verizon and AT&T are each using high-frequency millimeter spectrum to build 5G networks. Verizon has already launched a fixed wireless home broadband service that's live in four markets. It will launch a mobile offer early next year.  AT&T said it will launch mobile 5G in 12 markets by the end of 2018 and will expand this network throughout 2019.

Possible changes to media ownership rules

The FCC also voted to open its congressionally mandated "quadrennial" review of broadcast ownership rules. The agency is required to review rules and eliminate or modify them if it concludes they aren't in the public interest.

The rules that will be reviewed include the local radio ownership limits, local TV ownership limits and the dual-network rule that prevents one company from owning two of the major broadcast networks.

This means the FCC could decide to amend rules that bar one company from owning two or more TV stations in the same local market. And it also means it could allow mergers among the big four broadcast networks, such as NBC, ABC, CBS or Fox.

Commissioner Rosenworcel raised concerns that "too much consolidation can reduce the number of voices, jobs, and the newsgathering that results."

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