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New FCC Proceeding Seeks Comment on Potential Exemptions to Telemarketing, Autodialer, and Prerecorded Message Restrictions

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) issued a Public Notice seeking comment on a Petition for Expedited Clarification and Declaratory Ruling (Petition) filed by Global Tel*Link Corporation (Global Tel) regarding its outbound calling practices.  The Petition raises several key issues under the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) and related FCC rules, including whether certain calls (e.g., non-telemarketing calls) should be exempt from some of the TCPA’s restrictions on the use of prerecorded messages and autodialers.  Given the broad applicability of the TCPA and the FCC’s rules, this new proceeding could affect any company that places calls using prerecorded messages or autodialers.

The TCPA and the FCC’s rules prohibit, among other things, the use of automatic telephone dialing systems (“autodialers”) or artificial or prerecorded messages when calling, inter alia, telephone numbers assigned to wireless services, absent an emergency or the “prior express consent” of the called party.  Of note, the restriction against placing these calls to mobile phones without prior express consent applies regardless of whether the call is a “telemarketing” call.  The TCPA and the FCC’s rules also make it unlawful to place a non-emergency telephone call to a residential line “using an artificial or prerecorded voice” without the recipient’s “prior express consent” (although there are some exceptions).   

As described in the Petition, Global Tel provides outbound calling services for prison inmates.  For certain outbound calls (e.g., some calls from inmates to mobile phone numbers), Global Tel sets up a billing arrangement with the called party before connecting the called party to the inmate.  For example, when the inmate places a call, Global Tel initiates an “automated interactive voice response notification” to:

  • inform the called party that an inmate is trying to make contact;
  • get consent for the call; and
  • establish the billing arrangement. 

Global Tel then puts the call through. 

Concerned that these inmate calls could expose the company to liability under the TCPA and the FCC’s rules, Global Tel has asked the FCC to exempt the calls from TCPA enforcement.  For example, Global Tel argues that the calls to landline phones serve no commercial purpose, are not an unsolicited advertisement, and include an opt-out mechanism so that called parties can avoid future calls.  Regarding calls to mobile telephone numbers, Global Tel argues, among other things, that it can be presumed that the inmate has dialed a cell phone number because that is the number at which the called party wishes to be reached.  Moreover, the called party may have only a wireless phone (and not a landline phone).  Separately, Global Tel argues that its calls do not involve the use of an autodialer or predictive dialer.

Although the Petition is focused on Global Tel’s situation, the FCC’s decision in this proceeding could affect many companies that rely on the use of prerecorded messages or autodialers as part of their communications strategy.  Nonetheless, the FCC has established a very short comment period for this item – comments will be due just 15 days after the item appears in the Federal Register, and replies are due 25 days after the item appears in the Federal Register.