Federal Communications Commission Tackles the “Reassigned Number Problem”
Reassigned numbers have been at the center of the surge in litigation under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (“TCPA”) during the last few years. By now the story is well known to businesses that actively communicate with their customers: the customer consents to receive telemarketing and/or informational robocalls at a wireless telephone number, but months or years later the customer changes his or her wireless telephone number and—unbeknownst to the business—the telephone number is reassigned to a different person. When the recipient of the reassigned number starts receiving calls or messages from the business, a lawsuit often ensues under the TCPA because that party has not consented to receive such calls. The FCC adopted on July 13 a Second Notice of Inquiry (“Second NOI”) that promises to address this problem in a meaningful way. Specifically, the Second NOI focuses on the feasibility of “using numbering information to create a comprehensive resource that businesses can use to identify telephone numbers that have been reassigned from a consumer who has consented to receiving calls to a consumer who has not.”
Background on the Reassigned Number Problem
Under the current regime, the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) Administrator generally provides telephone numbers to voice service providers—including those who supply interconnected voice—in blocks of 1000. The voice service providers recycle those numbers in and out of service, such that, after a number has been dropped, the number goes into a pool for a short period and then is brought out of the pool and reassigned to a different consumer.
The “reassigned number problem” occurs when a consumer consents to receive robocalls (telemarketing and/or informational), but then terminates service to the relevant wireless number without informing the businesses the consumer previously gave consent to make the robocalls. Businesses that find themselves making robocalls to numbers that (unbeknownst to them) had been reassigned to a different consumer increasingly find themselves subject to lawsuits under the TCPA—this even though it has been widely acknowledged that (1) customers often switch telephone numbers without providing notice to businesses and (2) there is no public directory of reassigned wireless numbers that businesses can rely on to identify and scrub reassigned numbers. When various industry groups and business entities asked the FCC to intervene, the FCC clarified that businesses making robocalls needed the consent of “the actual party who receives a call,” not of the intended recipient of the robocall. FCC created a so-called “safe harbor” that afforded little protection in practice: a business could make a single call to a reassigned number without triggering liability under the TCPA, but the business would then be imputed with “constructive” knowledge that the number had been reassigned even if the single call did not yield actual confirmation that the number had been reassigned. The FCC did so even as it admitted that the tools available to identify reassigned numbers “will not in every case identify numbers that have been reassigned” and that the steps it was taking “may not solve the problem in its entirety” even “where the caller is taking ongoing steps reasonably designed to discover reassignments and to cease calls.”
The Second NOI
The Second NOI promises to more meaningfully address the reassigned number problem by suggesting the creation of a reliable, complete list of reassigned numbers that service providers would be required to update. In pertinent part, the Second NOI addresses a number of other topics, including, but not limited to, possible reporting alternatives, compensation schemes, frequency of updates, and fees and eligibility requirements for accessing reassigned number data. It also asks a number of logistical questions, including, but not limited to:
(1) What are the ways in which voice service providers could report the information in an accurate and timely way?
(2) Would the reporting—into a database or other platform—“substantially improve robocallers’ ability to identify reassigned numbers?”
(3) What information should voice service providers report?
(4) In what ways might the information reported raise concerns regarding the disclosure of private, proprietary, or commercially sensitive information?
(5) Should reassignment of toll-free numbers also be reported?
(6) What is the quantity of numbers reassigned and the benefits of reducing unwanted calls to these numbers?
(7) Should there be a safe harbor from TCPA violations for robocallers who use the new reassigned number resource? What would be the advantages and disadvantages?
(8) How can the FCC incentivize robocallers to use the reassigned number resource?
In addition, the Second NOI seeks comment on whether the notification requirement should apply to all voice service providers or just providers of wireless services, and how to “balance the reporting burden placed on voice service providers against consumers’ privacy interests and robocallers’ interest in learning of reassignments.” The item also seeks comment on which entity should be responsible for notification in circumstances when a voice service provider does not receive numbers directly from NANP, but instead obtains numbers “indirectly” from carrier partners.
The Commission claims it has the authority under Sections 227(b) and 251(e) of the Communications Act of 1934, as amended—which give the FCC control over the US portion of NANP and incorporate the TCPA—to require entities that obtain numbers from NANP to also report reassignments. In fact, the Commission claims that doing so may further the statutory goals underlying the TCPA, which generally prohibits unwanted robocalls.
Although many details remain to be discussed and addressed by the FCC, the creation of the list that the FCC is proposing would address one of the main challenges faced by businesses that want to comply with the TCPA: how to gather reliable and complete information regarding which wireless telephone numbers have been reassigned. The possibility of such a list working similar to that available to identify telephone numbers in the Do Not Call List is particularly promising, especially if it comes accompanied by safe harbor provisions similar to those attached to the Do Not Call List obligations in the FCC’s rules.
Comments are due August 28, 2017 and Reply Comments September 26, 2017.
 For purposes of this post “robocalls” refers to both calls made using an automatic telephone dialing system or using an artificial voice or pre-recorded message.