The robocalling problem just keeps getting worse and worse—last year, the Federal Communications Commission ordered telecommunications executives to start doing something about the problem, which one report in January 2019 estimated had exploded to the tune of 26.3 billion robocalls placed to U.S. numbers annually. And not even the people in charge of the nation’s wireless companies are immune, apparently. At an Economic Club event in Washington DC on Wednesday, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson got dialed up, or certainly appeared to, in front of dozens of audience members.
The Dallas Morning News reported Stephenson was there in part to bemoan DC bureaucrats who dragged out AT&T’s $85 billion ultra-merger with Time Warner (which, to be fair, there is some suspicion was more the result of Donald Trump’s feud with Time Warner subsidiary CNN).
In the clip below posted by C-SPAN, Stephenson paused to glance at his Apple Watch, telling the audience: “I’m getting a robocall, too... It’s literally a robocall.”
AT&T and rival Comcast actually just announced a partnership (supported by other industry players like Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint) intended to test new call authentication technology using cryptographic protocols named SHAKEN (Signature-based Handling of Asserted information using toKENs) and STIR (Secure Telephone Identity Revisited).
According to an AT&T statement, the system should make it harder for robocalls to spoof phone numbers—a practice in which the caller tricks a telephone network into showing a fake or fraudulent number on the receiving end. A similar system rolled out in limited usage on T-Mobile earlier this year, while Sprint will carry out its own testing in the second half of 2019. Senators John Thune and Ed Markey have also introduced legislation (the TRACED Act) mandating providers of voice service “implement an appropriate and effective call authentication framework in the internet protocol networks of voice service providers.”
Given the uncanny timing, it’s worth wondering whether this was a publicity ploy of some kind. On the other hand, it’s kind of embarrassing, given Stephenson heads one of the companies that let this problem spiral out of control. Anecdotally, I can tell you there’s no such thing as a good time to get one of these things, and have received them in the shower, on the subway, in the middle of other calls, during movies, and just when I’m starting to fall asleep.