Apple, Let Us Tune into Those FM Radio Channels

2 minute read
| Editorial

You probably already know this, but your iPhone has an FM receiver built into it. So do most smartphones, for that matter. Most devices in the United States and Canada leave the FM chip disabled. According to FCC chairman Ajit Pai, that’s something that manufacturers should change. He thinks consumers should be able to listen to FM radio with their smartphones. But, get this, he’s not looking to force the manufacturers to do anything about it.

FM Radio

Mr. Pai thinks that “radio is vital” to our society. He pointed out that when cellular networks are knocked out, over-the-air radio becomes a lifeline. It provides the latest weather forecasts, directions on where to seek shelter, and information about relief assistance. “After hurricanes or tornadoes or floods,” Mr. Pai told the North American Broadcasters Association’s Future of Radio and Audio Symposium, “time and again, we see an exponential surge in radio audiences.”

The argument in favor of Smartphone FM radio

The argument for enabling the FM chip in smartphones in the United States is two-fold. Mr. Pai suggested that consumers would love the ability to access some of their favorite content over-the-air. To do so, the FCC chairman stated, would use one-sixth of the battery life and less data. More importantly, however, Mr. Pai said that activating the FM radio chips is a matter of public safety.

You could make a case for activating chips on public safety grounds alone. The former head of our Federal Emergency Management Administration has spoken out in support of this proposal. The FCC has an expert advisory panel on public safety issues that has also advocated enabling FM radio chips on smartphones. It pointed out that, “[h]aving access to terrestrial FM radio broadcasts, as opposed to streaming audio services, may enable smartphone users to receive broadcast-based EAS alerts and other vital information in emergency situations – particularly when the wireless network is down or overloaded.”

Could the FCC force Apple to turn on those FM chips?

You would think that would mean the chairman was about to make a move to try forcing manufacturers such as Apple to enable the FM radio chips. Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. Mr. Pai is certainly trying to persuade manufacturers to bend to his will. He pointed out that only 44 percent of the top-selling smartphones in the United States have the FM chips activated compared to 80 percent in Mexico. Still, the FCC chairman said he has “no intention of putting my thumb on the scale for any segment of the communications industry.” He thinks the marketplace should sort out the issue.

This is a refreshing attitude to see. I certainly agree that the FM radio chips should be activated, and I believe that a gentle increase in the number of over-the-air radio-enabled smartphones would spur competition in the market and encourage other manufacturers to follow suit. My initial thought was that Apple would never go for this, since it might deter potential consumers from Apple Music.

Apple won’t kill the radio star

Then I got to thinking more about it. Consumers have radios in their cars, and that doesn’t stop them from getting involved in streaming music. Streaming music services are thriving, but according to the FCC chairman’s most recent comments, so is over-the-air radio. In fact, 93 percent of Americans over the age of 12 still listen to the radio each week, for an average of 12 hours per week. Maybe turning on those FM chips wouldn’t be so bad for Apple Music’s business, after all.

Come on, Apple, lead the industry once again. Enable the FM radio chips in our iPhones and release an over-the-air radio app that puts all others to shame. Or let third-party app developers do it. Just turn on that chip, already.

5 Comments Add a comment

  1. Enabling the FM radio chip in the iPhone sounds like a good idea however the FM receiver on the chip needs an antenna to receive the FM over the air signal. This is usually the headphone cord which Apple is trying to eliminate with use of Air Pods or other wireless Bluetooth headphones. The iPhone case is too small for a passive FM antenna thus the need for the use of the headphone cord. The iPhone can be designed with an active amplified smaller FM antenna in the iPhone case but surely would help reduce battery life of the phone.

    Only real solution out here is using the old fashioned wired ear pods or headphones with the antenna lead integrated into to iPhones charging port. Again this is pretty much the opposite of what Apple wants to do with movement to wireless headphones.

    If you have a unlimited data plan you can stream all the FM and AM stations you want via TuneIn or other streaming Apps with better audio quality and without worry of typical FM reception issues of either being too close or too far from the stations transmitting site. So, in my opinion, streaming radio stations via stream Apps is the better option in 2017 vs. over the air radio with the iPhone or Android Phone for that matter.

  2. Scott B in DC

    @JustCause, it was a suggestion.

    I still have a 6th Generation iPod Nano that I use when I am out and about, especially when riding my bicycle. It’s easier to deal with than the iPhone.

  3. MalcolmTucker

    @Joe_U

    An FM chip will use less electrical power than a cellular modem, CPU running decoding and an Operating System, and cell tower sendingand receiving control queue messages.

    On top of this, I’ve actually noticed that when I’m streaming Pandora or AppleMusic, there’s a higher probablility that phone calls will go to voicemail.

    This is likely because im already using an active data service connection and there are too many people in the area to setup an additional voice channel for a phone call.

    Forcing Apple to also support ad-supported and free music is great for its shareholders. Selling a $8/month streaming service which requires a $35-higher per-month data plan to “unlimited” service is the best way for carriers to make money. Apple should fight the FCC tooth-and-nail to prevent this potential revenue loss and protect shareholders.

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