Cellphone usage has grown dramatically since the Telephone Consumer Protection Act (TCPA) was introduced in 1991, and cellphones are now the primary way to reach certain desired demographics. Reaching a respondent through a cellphone, however, can now be at least twice as expensive and twice as time consuming compared to contacting a respondent on their landline. Compliance is the key. 

The root cause of this cost difference is the TCPA regulations restricting cellphone dialing that were introduced when there were fewer than 3 percent of the number of cellphone users as there are today and when cell network infrastructure was nascent.1 The regulation’s intent was to protect respondents from incurring unwelcome costs and to control the load on the networks. Although the legislation was primarily intended to regulate calls from telemarketers, the resulting law and regulation also impacts researchers.

Today, the U.S. has over 300 million cellphone subscribers and extremely robust, scalable network systems.2 In 2014, the cost of phone-based research should actually be going down since calls can now be placed directly to the targeted individual rather than to a household where available respondents need to be further screened. Compliance changes the economics.

The growth in cellphone usage, especially among youth and non-white segments, means that the cost of reaching these important segments is disproportionately higher. Survey timing and budget constraints may limit the interviewing hours available to meet demographic quotas. The opinions of these community members may not be well reflected in research results and our public policy. Thus, compliance with the TCPA introduces the distinct risk of under-representation.

What’s Really Happening

As a survey management solution provider with a strong customer base doing phone survey research, we have seen the industry struggle to comply with the regulation. Operational processes have to change. Technology needs to enable new approaches. Researchers have to look for more cost-effective alternatives.

What Compliance Looks Like

The law prohibits automated dialing of cellphone numbers (except in cases of emergency) without the consumer’s express prior consent, and defines the automatic telephone dialing system as equipment capable of storing or producing numbers that will be called using a random or sequential number generator to dial. In 2003, even though certain predictive dialers did not dial numbers randomly or sequentially, the FCC restricted all uses of predictive dialers.3 Another decision by the FCC in 2008 further added to the confusion over dialers used to place live calls for research by reiterating that “certain predictive dialers that did make use of a random or sequential number generator are autodialers.4

Failure to follow TCPA guidelines can result in fines, including $500 to $1,500 per infraction (i.e., per phone number that should not have been autodialed), as well as big class action lawsuits (including two recent class actions against marketing research companies).5 When you couple all of the obstacles with the ever-increasing demand for initial insights in marketing and polling; the challenge for conducting cellphone-based research becomes even more difficult, (i.e. costly).

What The Outcome Is

Cellphone dialing has changed as a result of TCPA compliance. Researchers need to identify landlines versus cellphones so that they can be treated differently. The cellphone sample must follow certain guidelines:

  1. Is the number a cellphone or landline?
  2. If it’s a cellphone, did the owner express consent?
    1. Cellphone numbers without express consent need to be manually dialed.
    2. Cellphone numbers with express consent can be treated like landlines and fully leverage the advantages of a predictive dialer.

Our customers report that it is rare to receive sample where a cellphone number has been explicitly identified as having been obtained with “express consent.” More typically, the researcher is left to decide how to treat the cellphone sample using a process like the one illustrated in this decision tree.

What This Regulation Means in Practice

TCPA compliance impacts the way researchers must prepare sample, manage lists, dial numbers, and leverage enabling technology. Compliance impacts study costs and, longer term, the choice of methodologies chosen for the research.

Sample Preparation and List Management

The goal of sample preparation and list management is to differentiate cellphones from landlines, identify any “express consent” cellphone records and then define which dialing method will be followed for each type of record.

Proprietary Lists

Much research is conducted using proprietary lists representing customers, employees, members, voters, etc. If these lists are representative of the general public, then over 40 percent will be sample who have only cellphones and many more people will have indicated cellphones as their preferred contact method.6

The list owner should know how each record entered the sample, but the phone-based interviewing is often subcontracted or outsourced to an independent call center. This presents a compliance challenge. For example, can you assume that these respondents have all opted-in by giving their express prior consent? Who is held responsible for compliance if any cellphones on the list do not have appropriate permissions? Is this the responsibility of the list owner or the organization placing the calls?

The call center must decide whether to trust the list provider or verify the cellphone permissions. Alternatively, the call center can choose to simply execute the survey using the most compliant, and also most costly, dialing methods for all cellphone sample.

Purchased Lists

Both cellphone and landline sample can be purchased from providers who have received prior permission from each person to be contacted on that number. This still presents a compliance challenge for sample providers. Many household numbers are now ported to connect to a cellphone rather than a landline and sample providers must remove these numbers from the landline lists. The current method for identifying a ported number is to purchase a license to the Neustar service and review the sample list for numbers to be removed.

There are also other compliance challenges. Sample providers will remove ported numbers from the landline list, but these numbers will not be added to the cellphone list. Neustar licensing supports only removal of numbers and prohibits using the information service to identify numbers that can be added to the cellphone samples. These unusable respondents with ported numbers may represent a gap in the demographic make-up of the sample.7

RDD Samples

Managing RDD samples is also challenging. When using RDD sample generation, cellphone numbers must somehow be identified. Each generated number must be analyzed using certain number ranges and validated against the Neustar database. Otherwise, all numbers will have to be treated as cellphones.

Technology Enablement for Sample Management

Once sample has been identified for the appropriate dialing method, the sample file can be processed in one of two ways. The sample can be separated into two or more files, where each file will be handled by a different dialing method or both cellphone and landline samples can be left in a single file, and each record dialed differently.

There are also best practices for sample record management such as arranging callbacks by allowing the respondents to provide their cellphone number for the interviewer to call them back. The systems must allow a real-time change to the recorded phone number based on new respondent input or preferences.

Technology Adaptations for Cellphone Manual Dialing

If you don’t have permission to dial a cellphone, your choices are limited to labor-intensive methods that severely lessen call center productivity. For example, industry research shows that autodialers can increase interviewer productivity by 17 minutes per hour. Remove this option and study costs begin to mount.

What You Can’t Use When You Don’t Have Permission to Dial a Cellphone

You can’t use outbound IVR to reduce interviewing costs because there is no opportunity for manual dialing with IVR. You also can’t use predictive dialing. However, predictive dialing maximizes interviewer productivity by not engaging the interviewer until a connection has been made.

What’s Still True

Intelligent sample management can still be used to determine the best number to call for fastest quota attainment. The survey interviewer, however, must manually dial the cellphone number in order to maintain compliance. Interview recordings can still be made if you choose to place cellphone calls using the “manual” mode of a predictive dialer.

Technology Challenges and Adaptations for Manual Dialing

Over the decades since the TCPA emerged, dialing solutions have evolved to enable a range of “manual” dialing methods, although the definition of “manual” is subject to significant litigation and legal debate. Once the phone number is presented on the screen by the survey management system, the interviewer can attempt to connect to a cellphone respondent in one of several ways.

  • Hit a DIAL button on the computer screen and the dialing system places the call.
  • Re-key the phone number into the system. This allows for error checking, ensuring the proper number is dialed.
  • Use a desktop phone or some other physical input device to connect without going through the dialing system. This method has the opportunity for error by mis-keying and entering the wrong number and may not provide the opportunity to record the call.

Most phone survey interviews today are recorded for a variety of purposes, such as training, quality assurance, and later sharing with clients. When some manual dialing methods bypass the survey dialing system, this usually means that the call cannot be recorded by the same system that is recording the landline interviews. Another recording method must be engaged or recordings are not made on this subset of interviews.8

Adaptive Behaviors

Choice of Modes

Research methodology has broadened beyond phone-based interviewing and survey call centers have seen their business contract. The cost of compliance with cellphone regulations likely accelerates the shift away from phone research to, for example, more online surveying.

Reliability of cellphone identification methods and the risk of fines add so much complexity and cost uncertainty that some researchers have chosen to completely abandon predictive dialing even for landline sample, preferring instead to either increase their pricing or take narrower margins. For certain studies, researchers may even find in-person interviewing attractive to bid since the costs are understood and the outcomes are predictable.

Impact on Quality

Manually dialing cellphone numbers takes more time to reach a willing respondent. A study may have to close, for budget or time constraints, before the quota is met for each segment. This inability to meet quota requirements for cellphone-intensive demographics will require more weighting of the survey results. When weighting is too heavily relied upon, this could impact the quality of research.

Unintended Consequences of the TCPA

In 2014, do cellphone users still need to be treated differently for research studies, especially cellphone-only users? When a cellphone number is given on a membership application, voter registration form, or HR record, is that person providing any different access than a person giving a landline number?

Is democracy being served if certain demographics find it difficult to have their voice heard because public policy researchers and politicians can’t afford to reach them?

Since the TCPA regulations went into effect, researchers and technology providers have shown a willingness to adapt to the new reality. Perhaps we are at a tipping point that requires similar adaption from our regulatory environment.


  1. CG Docket No. 02-278 Before the Federal Communications Commission, Comments of the Marketing Research Association, Howard Fienberg, November 15, 2012, p. 11
  2. Ibid
  3. CG Docket No. 02-278 Before the Federal Communications Commission, Comments of the Marketing Research Association, Howard Fienberg, November 15, 2012, p. 5 – 6
  4. Ibid, p. 5.
  5. “TCPA Update: Parsing recent court decisions and FCC policy clarifications, and what they mean for research,” MRA, April 28, 2014. http://www.insightsassocation.org/tcpa-restrictions-on-using-autodialers...
  6. TCPA Restrictions on Using Autodialers to Call Cellphones, MRA. http://www.insightsassocation.org/tcpa-restrictions-on-using-autodialers...
  7. AAPOR Cellphone Task Force Report, 2010, p 24
  8. “MRA Members Only: TCPA Update: Parsing recent court decisions and FCC policy clarifications, and what they mean for research.” MRA, April 28, 2014. http://www.insightsassocation.org/news/2014/04/28/mra-members-only-tcpa-...

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