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FCC puts robocalls, prison phones at the top of its agenda

New FCC Chairman Ajit Pai lays out a handful of issues he wants to tackle at the agency's monthly open meeting. First up: kill the robocalls.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai at Mobile World Congress pushing for less regulation.
Roger Cheng/CNET

The man who would " dismantle net neutrality with a smile" has another target in his cross hair for March.

On Thursday, newly minted Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai released the agency's agenda for the month, with six items it will discuss and vote on March 23. At the top of the list is killing robocalls -- those automated phone calls that annoy the entire nation.

Pai has been working fast to kill regulation and policies like net neutrality -- the concept that all internet traffic must be treated as equal -- that the previous administration enforced. So far, in a little more than a month, he's stopped rules to protect data privacy, blocked internet privacy regulations and chipped away at net neutrality. In March's agenda, Pai looks to get rid of even more regulations his predecessors put in place.

But first, he's looking to kill off an old enemy.


Robocalls have become a national scourge, as the No. 1 complaint from consumers to the FCC. Americans receive 2.4 billion robocalls a month, about seven calls per person. The issue has plagued past FCC administrations, with former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler forming the " Robocall Strike Force" with AT&T, Apple, Google and other companies.

In Pai's proposal for March, the FCC would give telecommunications companies more power to block spoofed robocalls, when people disguise their phone numbers as another number. Under the FCC's current rules, phone carriers can't do much to block spoofed calls. A majority of robocalls spoof unused numbers that aren't assigned to people, to avoid being detected and blocked.

"There is no reason why any legitimate caller should be spoofing an unassigned or invalid phone number," Pai wrote in a Medium post on Thursday. "It's just a way for scammers to evade the law."

Prison phones:

Ending cellphones in prisons is second on the FCC's agenda for March. Pai already opposed cheap prison phone calls, in a push to reverse his predecessor's actions to put a cap on prison call rates. But cellphones behind bars are even worse, Pai said.

In most prisons, cellphones are regarded as contraband, but inmates have been able to sneak in devices, using them to run drug operations, phone scams and order attacks from their cells, Pai said. In Georgia, prison officials took more than 8,300 illegal cellphones in just one year.

The FCC will vote on using radio technology to find and block contraband phones in prisons and jails, along with using geo-fencing to disable devices behind bars.

Video Relay Service:

Third on the agenda is improving Video Relay Service, the FCC's communications tool for the deaf. The VRS allows deaf people to call others and communicate using sign language, and have it interpreted and translated to voice and back. Pai is looking to improve the service by introducing specialized interpreters that can help with medical or technical cases.

Phone regulations:

Pai also wants to reform cellular service, giving telecommunications providers more flexibility on providing broadband to customers. The vote could pave the way for faster data by letting wireless providers shift traffic from the original radio spectrum to more modern spectrums.

Cutting regulations was a big part of Pai's speech this week at Mobile World Congress. He's also looking to get rid of requirements for international telecommunications providers, as the fifth item on the FCC's March agenda.

Channel sharing:

The final item on the FCC's March agenda is a vote on channel sharing. If it passes, it expands the rules on what stations could share the same channel, according to the proposal. The new rules would give "low power TV... more options to stay in business and continue broadcasting essential news and information to the public," Pai wrote in his post.

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