FCC Chairman Pressures Apple to Activate iPhone’s Dormant FM Chip

FCC Chairman Pressures Apple to Activate iPhone's Dormant FM Chip Credit: The Verge
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The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) is urging Apple to activate the FM chips within its iPhone handsets.

Chairman Ajit Pai issued a statement this week specifically calling on Apple to activate the dormant FM tuners, which are already built into every iPhone but left deactivated by the manufacturer. If turned on, the FM chip would allow iPhone users to listen to FM radio over the air — without using a cellular or Wi-Fi connection.

That becomes especially relevant for communities battered by powerful storms — like recent hurricanes — which can leave thousands without access to cellular connectivity. Even without an internet connection, users could listen to important news and weather reports via FM radio if the chips were turned on.

Pai wrote that he hopes Apple will “reconsider its position” in the wake of those hurricanes, which have devastated areas of the United States, including Texas, Florida and U.S. territory Puerto Rico. “It is time for Apple to step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first,” the chairman added.

The FCC’s statement comes amidst renewed pressure from industry and lobbying groups to activate these FM chips. “Broadcasters are providing information on how to evacuate quickly, where flood waters are raging, how to get out of harm’s way if there’s a tornado or hurricane,” a spokesperson for the National Association of Broadcasters told Bloomberg Thursday. “The notion that Apple or anyone else would block this type of information is something we find fairly troubling,”

The broadband modems installed in most modern smartphones — including Qualcomm and Intel chips — already have a built-in FM tuner that would allow people to listen to FM radio over the air. But on iPhones, Apple has left this functionality disabled — forcing users to stream FM radio via cellular or Wi-Fi connectivity. FM connectivity would also allow users to listen to free content over the radio, which some critics say is a key reason certain companies leave the capability off.

This isn’t the first time Pai has criticized phone-makers for leaving the FM chips in their devices off. “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 in February. Despite his comments, Pai said that he is a believer in “free markets,” and cannot support government legislation or an FCC mandate requiring companies to activate these FM chips.

But while Pai has urged phone makers to activate FM chips before, today’s statement is the first time that Pai has called Apple out by name. “Apple is the only major phone manufacturer that has resisted (turning on FM chips),” the chairman wrote. “Do the right thing, Mr. Cook. Flip the switch. Lives depend on it.”

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