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By Lydia Beyoud
Sept. 1 — Congress should overhaul a federal robocall law to bring it up to date now that the number of mobile phones in the U.S. eclipses the population, top Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee said in a Sept. 1 letter to committee Chairman Fred Upton.
“The TCPA is beginning to show its age,” House Commerce ranking member Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.), Communications and Technology Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and Commerce, Manufacturing and Trade Subcommittee ranking member Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.) said in asking for a joint subcommittee hearing on the 25-year-old Telephone Consumer Protection Act.
“Technology is allowing telemarketers to circumvent existing rules, and while the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) have been doing what they can under the existing laws, consumer complaints are nonetheless on the rise,” the Democrats said.
Unwanted robocalls and robotexts are the top consumer complaint received by the FCC. The Democrats signalled they would pursue policies to close what some see as gaps in the rules allowing certain types of companies to contact consumers without facing TCPA penalties.
The letter also tees up the possibility that lawmakers might seek to restructure the FTC's authority by considering whether to allow them to take enforcement actions against common carriers—telephone companies and other broadband providers— under federal communications law.
The FCC's 2015 Open Internet rules reclassified broadband providers including AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp. as common carriers, which revoked the FTC's authority to investigate or fine them.
If Upton (R-Mich.) schedules a hearing or agrees with the Democrats that the TCPA needs to be revisited, it may signal that the lawmakers are preparing to tackle the issue in the next Congress, possibly as part of a broader rewrite of federal telecommunications law. No legislation is likely to occur on the issue before 2017 due to the dwindling number of congressional days scheduled before the elections and end of year.
Democrats want the committee to hold the hearing in September, but will continue to push for it until something is scheduled, a committee aide told Bloomberg BNA on background. A Republican committee spokesman didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Among the provisions the Democrats want to examine are the law's distinctions between applications to wireless and landline phones. Lawmakers should consider whether a future version of the TCPA should be technology neutral, the Democratic trio of lawmakers wrote.
Nearly half of all U.S. households are mobile-only, according to Center for Disease Control data. The proliferation of billions of connected devices, the prevalence of high-speed broadband networks, and telecommunications and media industry consolidation have resulted in a much different technology and telecommunications landscape than the one that existed when lawmakers last overhauled federal communications law in 1996.
A significant point of conflict in recent FCC efforts to modernize its TCPA regulations has been whether smartphones qualify as autodialer devices, which enable telemarketers, debt collectors and other companies to automatically dial consumers' numbers.
“The FCC has acknowledged that the answer to this basic question of what constitutes an autodialer is unclear,” and a more substantive definition should be considered, the Democratic lawmakers said.
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