In a clamp-down on nuisance calls, the Office of Communications ("Ofcom") issued a new answer machine detection ("AMD") rule, designed to tackle silent and abandoned calls. The rule, which comes into effect on 1 February 2011, will see non-compliant companies faced with named investigations and fines of up to £2 million.

Silent calls - where someone answering a call is met only with silence on the other end - can be a source of great annoyance for many telephone users, especially when repeated silent calls are received from the same company. In addition, such calls can cause considerable distress, particularly to vulnerable individuals.

However, despite these unpleasant effects, the vast majority of silent calls are generated with no malicious intent. Rather, most silent calls result from the use by call centres of technologies, such as AMD.

Broadly-speaking, AMD is designed to drop calls when an answering machine is detected. However, the technology is known occasionally to experience "false positives", where genuine individuals are mistaken for answer machines - and, accordingly, the call is dropped, leaving the answering individual listening to nothing but silence.

The number of complaints received by Ofcom have shown this not be an insignificant problem. Indeed, in 2010, over 9000 complaints were received concerning silent calls. Moreover, 70% of these complainants said that they had received two or more silent calls from the same company within a 24-hour period.

The new rule governing AMD forms part of Ofcom's revised Statement of Policy on Persistent Misuse, which was issued in October 2010. When this AMD rule comes into effect on 1 February 2011, if a call is identified by AMD equipment as having been picked up by an answer machine (including false positives), any repeat calls to the same number within the same 24 hour period may only be made with the guaranteed presence of a live operator.

Companies contravening this rule will face the imposition of a penalty of up to £2 million (the new Ofcom maximum penalty approved by Parliament in September 2010, replacing the previous maximum of £50,000). As such, with this dramatically increased deterrent, it has arguably never been more pressing for communications companies to ensure compliance with these regulatory requirements.

Ofcom's revised Statement of Policy, including the new rule, can be accessed here.