FCC Chairman Advocates Turning on the FM Receiver Already in Your iPhone

Image via Frank Gaertner

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission wants you to be able to listen to free FM radio on your smartphone.

Many consumers don’t realize that many popular smartphones on the market today have FM chips already built-in. For example, Qualcomm’s LTE modem, which is used in nearly all smartphones, has an FM chip, Recode reported. The obscurity of this fact, however, might be because the vast majority of these FM chips are inactivated — at least in the United States.

According to a study by the National Association of Broadcasters, only 44 percent of top-selling smartphones in the U.S. actually have these chips enabled. And for Apple devices, that number is even lower — around 94 percent of the smartphones with non-activated chips are iPhones, the study found. Newly appointed FCC Chairman Ajit Pai thinks that should change, according to Recode.

“It seems odd that every day we hear about a new smartphone app that lets you do something innovative, yet these modern-day mobile miracles don’t enable a key function offered by a 1982 Sony Walkman,” Pai said at the Future of Radio and Audio Symposium in Washington, D.C. on Wednesday.

With the FM receivers disabled, smartphone users are forced to download and use third-party apps to stream FM radio via Wi-Fi or cellular data. If those chips were activated, listening to FM radio would be free — and it wouldn’t use any data. There’s also a public safety element attached to FM chips: having them enabled would allow smartphones users to receive emergency broadcasts, even without cellular or wireless service.

“The former head of our Federal Emergency Management Administration has spoken out in support of this proposal,” Pai said. “The FCC has an expert advisory panel on public safety issues that has also advocated enabling FM radio chips on smartphones.”

Government officials aren’t the only ones who think this is a good idea. In 2015, a campaign called Free Radio on my Phone was launched, calling for U.S.-based carriers to activate the FM chips in popular smartphone models. According to them, AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile all have moved toward supporting the functionality on Android-based phones.

Not everyone supports the activation of FM chips in smartphones, however. CTIA, one of the largest wireless industry trade associations, is opposed to the measure, according to the Washington Post. Apple’s stance on the issue is currently unclear — and it’s not known whether the chips in Qualcomm’s must be activated during assembly, or could be later enabled via a software update.

Whether or not it’s a good idea, however, Pai said he doesn’t believe the government should make anything mandatory: “As a believer in free markets and the rule of law, I cannot support a government mandate requiring activation of these chips,” he said.

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