After two years, Do Not Call a ringing success.
In 2003, when the federal government awarded AT&T a multimillion-dollar deal to build its National Do Not Call Registry, doubters called the move putting a fox in charge of the henhouse.
Whose dinner hadn't been interrupted by a call from a telemarketer pitching the carrier's services?
Two years later, the registry has proved to be a success. In August, it reached an important milestone when the 100 millionth telephone number was added to the system, which allows consumers to list their telephone numbers as off-limits to telemarketers.
AT&T is touting the registry as a rare example of a government IT project that works as planned. Built using emerging technologies, including Microsoft's .Net architecture, and Web services standards, such as XML and Simple Object Access Protocol, the National Do Not Call Registry has never suffered a major outage.
"This system was engineered and built very quickly, within three months," says Linda Miller, project manager for the registry at AT&T Government Solutions. "The elegance of the design is remarkable. It's been able to handle anything that's been thrown at it over the test of time. It has withstood heavy consumer usage and heavy telemarketer usage."
The impact of the Do Not Call Registry is broader than eliminating annoying dinnertime phone calls for consumers who register their numbers via the Web or a toll-free telephone number. The registry also has shown the power of the Web as a way for government agencies to provide simple, reliable services directly to citizens.
"This is the first time where consumers really controlled something, and they feel good about it," Miller says. "The Web provides a whole new interface between John Q. Public and the government. It is relatively cheap, and it works."
The National Do Not Call Registry accepted its first registrations in June 2003. Initially, the system accepted a flood of listings, with more than 27 million telephone numbers entered during the first month. At its peak, the system handled 4 million registrations in one day.
Except for a few days when the registry was turned off by court order in conjunction with a lawsuit filed by the telemarketing industry, the registry has been up and running.
"From the FTC's perspective, the Do Not Call Registry has been a huge success for consumers," says David Robbins, a lawyer and program manager for the FTC. "It has enabled 100 million consumers to register their preference for not receiving telemarketing calls. It has allowed telemarketers to get lists of people to whom they should not place calls. And it has allowed people who still receive calls to file complaints."
The system was built by AT&T Government Solutions, which was awarded a $3.5 million contract. AT&T won the contract because it had the best technical solution and the lowest price, AT&T officials say.
The carrier continues to operate the registry as an outsourced service, earning an estimated $3 million to $4 million per year. AT&T is compensated on a transaction basis, depending on the number of telephone numbers successfully registered in the system. The FTC has the option to extend AT&T's contract for seven more years.
"AT&T has never suffered a major outage. That's very significant from my perspective," Robbins says. "We've never had a day where consumers came in droves and couldn't register their preference not to receive calls from telemarketers."
Initial estimates were that the registry would support 60 million phone numbers, but it has surpassed 100 million and shows no signs of leveling off. Altogether, there are 240 million telephone numbers in the U.S., so the registry holds 43% of the total.
The majority of registrations, 66%, were submitted over the Web, while the remainder were submitted through a toll-free telephone number with interactive voice-recognition technology. The registry uses Web services to automatically integrate the Web and interactive voice-response systems.
The registry also handles 60,000 consumer complaints per month about inappropriate telemarketing activity. These complaints are used by law enforcement agencies to track down telemarketers who are violating the registry and to levy fines against them.
On the flip side, the registry accommodates 700,000 downloads per month from telemarketers seeking to scrub their databases of consumer telephone numbers that are illegal to call.
"We worked really hard to make this registry happen in a way that makes it easy and usable and understandable to consumers and telemarketers. I think it is a success story, and that's been borne out in the awards we've won," Robbins says, pointing out that the system won a Service to America Medal in 2004.
Miller attributes the success of the National Do Not Call Registry to its simplicity. She says it was a very focused system-development effort, with the FTC and AT&T Government Solutions agreeing about what needed to be done.
"This system was built to spec and delivered a week early to coincide with President Bush's launch of it," Miller says.
Now the registry's process receives continual improvements. Eight full-time, on-site staff members keep the system running, and an additional 30 people provide off-site support at AT&T Government Solutions and other vendors.
"Systems that are working well may seem boring to some people, but the fact is that the system is working well for the benefit of consumers," Robbins says. "Like any system, there are always incremental improvements that we will be making. But I don't see any big changes on the horizon."
In 2003, AT&T winning the National Do Not Call Registry contract was ironic given how aggressive AT&T and its archrival MCI were at telemarketing. In fact, a year after AT&T Government Solutions won the contract to build this registry, AT&T agreed to pay a $490,000 fine from the FCC for illegal telemarketing activities.
Today, the issue of AT&T's telemarketing activities is largely irrelevant given the exodus of such carriers from the residential telecommunications market.
"I'm not sure what telemarketing we do anymore," says AT&T Government Solutions spokesman Jim McGann. He adds that the FCC fined a different division of AT&T. "That's a separate branch of the company. We don't know those people," he says.
High fees questioned
Although it is considered successful, the registry is not without controversy. The American Teleservices Association, a group in Indianapolis that represents telemarketers, tried and failed to get the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw the registry. Now the ATA's main gripes are the FTC's lack of enforcement of telemarketers that violate the registry and the high fees levied on telemarketers that use the registry.
"Now that the registry is the law of the land, we want everyone to abide by it," says ATA CEO Tim Searcy. "We have tremendous concern with 1 million plus consumer complaints filed and only three fines being levied. What is the FTC doing to get rid of illegitimate practitioners?"
The ATA also complains that the FTC twice increased the fees charged to telemarketers to use the registry. Telemarketers pay to gain access to registry data by area code, with maximum charges reaching $15,600 per year. The ATA estimates that the FTC is collecting $18 million a year through the Do Not Call Registry.
"What do they need $18 million for?" Searcy asks. "We're having difficulty finding out what the dollars are being used for."