NAB: “Setting the record straight on FM radio in iPhones”

(Source: Contributor Sam Matheny via the NAB Blog)

In recent months, the Southeast U.S., Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands have been pummeled by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.  The wildfires in California have been equally devastating.  These storms and fires have wreaked havoc on communications networks and challenged public safety officials’ ability to get lifeline information to affected residents.

At a time when many Americans have come to rely on their smartphones, massive cellular outages were suffered from Texas to Florida on an even greater scale than in Superstorm Sandy five years ago, and California has also suffered major outages in key locations.  In Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, it may take weeks and even months to fully restore cellular service because of the damage to the electric grid.  This has been a painful reminder of the need for a redundant and pervasive communications infrastructure, especially in times of disaster and emergency.

Radio, television, cellular, satellite, and other communications networks all have a role to play in a crisis.  In the wake of these storms, a passionate discussion about activating FM radio in smartphones – and, specifically, Apple’s iPhone – has emerged. This discussion was started by those most impacted by Irma when the South Florida Sun-Sentinel editorialized on the issue and Senator Bill Nelson of Florida called for activating FM chips in smartphones.  FCC Chairman Ajit Pai also issued a public statement calling for Apple to activate FM chips to promote public safety and FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel also weighed in with her support.

There has been a good bit of technical back and forth since these calls to “light up the chip,” and this is my effort to try and set the record straight.

Here is the BLUF – Bottom Line Up Front

Apple has built and offered a wonderful FM app in their iPod Nano for many years.  They know how to make FM work, and work well, in their mobile devices.  Apple even wrote its own Nano app that allows the user to pause live radio and buffer up to 15 minutes of content.

However, Apple has specifically chosen not to offer this functionality in their iPhone. Indeed, Apple has disabled FM chips despite the capability being available on the communications module within the iPhone.  This means other app developers cannot offer FM apps either.

Apple CEO Tim Cook hails from Mobile, Alabama and attended Auburn University. Mobile has been impacted by at least 10 different hurricanes since 1969 and that was prior to Nate, which brought a nearly six-foot storm surge and flooding, so I have to believe Mr. Cook has a personal appreciation for the damage these storms can inflict.  We invite him and Apple to reconsider activating FM radio in iPhones, and we stand ready to work together to enable this important service.[…]

Continue reading the full article on the NAB blog.

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4 thoughts on “NAB: “Setting the record straight on FM radio in iPhones”

  1. Mark Fahey

    Interesting, One thing worth noting though is the author’s argument fails in his third point – that smartphones use the headphone cable for the FM radio antenna. That is of course true, but contemporary Apple iPhones don’t feature headphone or earbud phono sockets. The phones are now primarily being designed for Bluetooth earbuds rather than cabled headsets.

  2. Tom Servo

    Oh, this crap again. Look, the new iPhones don’t even have a headphone jack, so even if they had an FM chip (which they don’t) they couldn’t pick anything up to begin with. While it’d be nice for Apple to enable the chips in the older phones (and Android handset makers to do so in their phones, the majority of which also contain dark FM chips) that would cut into the carrier’s revenue generated from streaming audio which eats up data. So don’t expect it to happen unless someone passes a law. And even then, don’t expect but a handful of phones to ever get “lit up” with FM.

    And while I’m bitching about it, which FM station would YOU listen to in an emergency? Down here on the coast, most of the stations went to wall-to-wall TV audio simulcasting during the last yawner of a hurricane. But caught off guard by something sudden, like a tornado, a chem spill, or a bridge collapse? There’d be no one at Hits FM and Sunny Mix Magic 105 to actually cover it. So what good would having FM really do?

    The thing the NAB refuses to acknowledge is, the market has spoken, and it has firmly said “FM on phones? Who gives a damn?” There were phones that highlighted their FM abilities, and they were poor sellers.

    This whole thing reminds me of the crowing the various industry groups did about getting “emergency shortwave radios” to Puerto Rico and the USVI. Well gee, that’s nice. But name one broadcaster that a) actually offered emergency info to that region or b) one that beams in that general direction to begin with. Great. The people of San Juan have no power or water, but they can listen to Brother Stair! Brilliant.

    One last thing: Tim Cook is NOT from Mobile. He’s from Robertsdale. That’s like calling someone in Riverside an Angelino. It’s incorrect and a bit of an insult. Robertsdale is so far inland that it has pretty much escaped heavy damage from those “last 10 hurricanes” that hit Mobile. In fact, it’s one of the shelter locations for people fleeing lower ground, because it’s flood-resistant and far enough inland that wind damage is lessened. So yeah, swing and a miss there, Mr. NAB Talking Head.

  3. Steven Crawford

    When I clicked through to the complete article this bullet point caught my eye.

    “FEMA has designated radio stations that operate especially hardened transmission facilities as the primary source of initial emergency information so they can be the lifeline service that everyone can depend on.“

    While I believe this is true for AM is it true for FM? None of FM stations within 60 – 70 miles have a broadcast format that would lead one suspect they may be a FEMA choice several of the AM broadcasters do. Has FEMA actually selected some FM broadcasters for this program? Where can a list of AM and FM broadcasters so selected be found?

    1. Steven Crawford

      Ok I was able to answer my own question. After taking a few detours through the FEMA and FCC websites coupled with a few articles on Wikipedia I had picked up enough acronyms to properly structure a key word search for a search engine to deliver the results I was looking for.

      What worked for me was “texas eas plan”, I have tested thee search with several other states substituted for texas and in each case a similar plan was listed in the search results.

      I will provide a link to the Texas plan at the end of this comment to help clarify the following examples.

      The first thing you want to look for in your state plan will be similar to this found on page 12 of the Texas Plan.The primary delivery path for all National messages in Texas, pursuant to plans established previously by FEMA, will come from the White House via special, “hardened” phone lines to Texas’ four Primary Entry Point (PEP) stations, KTRH Houston, WBAP Dallas-Fort Worth, KLBJ Austin and KROD El Paso.

      I am fortunate in that I am in the day / night coverage for KTRH and WBAP is easily listenable at night.

      Next you will want to locate the map of your state, It will be divided into numbered region or districts. Determine the region or district that contains your county. This is found on Pages 30 – 33 in the example. Each region or district will contain a city’s name. Note the name. That city has the Local Primary EAS stations listed and yes, there are FM stations.

      Now scroll through the document until you find the station listing for that city. In my case this was found on page 34 and includes KLVI AM, which I suspected, KQXY FM, which I did not suspect, and the NWS WXK-28 weather radio, which I knew.

      So there you have it. I found it an interesting read.

      Link to the Texas Emergency Alert System plan used in the explanatory examples:


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