The Federal Communications Commission released a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on Friday concerning the use of modern dialing technologies when contacting consumers on cell phones about student loan debts, mortgages, taxes and other debts owed to or guaranteed by the government.

The federal agency is now seeking comments on the proposal, which is likely to strike a balance between consumer protections and a congressional directive included in the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2015, signed by President Obama last November.

Under the Act, autodialed calls "made solely to collect a debt owed to or guaranteed by the United States" no longer require the prior express consent of the recipient. Robocalls are a primary subject of consumer complaints to the FCC, which voted last year to tighten rules on robocalls and spam texts in a controversial order that practitioners predicted would cause Telephone Consumer Protection Act-related litigation to soar.

The FCC has a statutorily mandated deadline of August 2 to implement updates. The agency seeks input on several proposals and implementation questions, including how it should limit the number and duration of calls, how to put such restrictions in place and which calls are covered by the phrase "solely to collect.” 

The Bipartisan Budget Act allows the FCC to limit the frequency and duration of such calls and directs the FCC to issue a regulation to implement the amendments to the TCPA within nine months of enactment.

Some specific proposals where the FCC seeks feedback include: interpret "solely to collect" to mean only those calls made to obtain payment after the borrower is delinquent, meaning covered calls would begin when a borrower is delinquent on a payment; whether to include servicing calls as covered collection calls; whether to allow calls only to the person obligated to pay the debt to ensure that a debtor’s family or friends are not subjected to non-consent robocalls seeking information about the debtor; whether to limit calls to three per month, even if unanswered. (A caller presumably would be able to obtain consent to make additional calls beyond whatever limit is adopted); and whether to allow consumers to stop covered calls at any time. Stop requests would apply to a future collector of the same debt and callers would be required to inform debtors of their right to make such a request. 

The FCC also poses several specific questions for comment. They include:

  • Should the FCC encourage debtors hearing from a live agent to discuss a debt and potential servicing options? How?
  • How should covered calls be linked with other laws and rules that more generally govern collections?
  • Should the FCC limit a covered caller using or transferring information obtained during covered calls in order to collect other debts or to address other matters?
  • How should the Supreme Court’s decision in Campbell-Ewald Co. v. Gomez inform the FCC’s implementation of the Budget Act amendments to the TCPA? 

Comments are due on June 6 and reply comments are due June 21. 
FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai dissented regarding approving the rulemaking notice. He criticized the Obama Administration for singling out federal debt collectors for special treatment while limiting others to a different set of TCPA rules.    

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