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FCC Chairman Calls on Apple to Turn on FM Reception in iPhones

"It is time for Apple to step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first"

Text has been updated with additional information.

Ajit Pai just weighed in more forcefully on the FM chip debate, and did something unusual, calling out an electronics manufacturer by name.

Pai — chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and already something of a hero to many U.S. radio broadcasters for his general words about radio as well as his deregulatory approach — previously had made known his support for the voluntary activation by phone makers of FM reception capability that is latent in most phones. And he gives no sign of changing his opposition to any kind of requirement or mandate to do that. But today he explicitly called on Apple, the big notable holdout whose iPhones seem to be everywhere, to turn on FM radio reception capability, posing this as a matter of public safety.

He wrote: “In recent years, I have repeatedly called on the wireless industry to activate the FM chips that are already installed in almost all smartphones sold in the United States. And I’ve specifically pointed out the public safety benefits of doing so. In fact, in my first public speech after I became Chairman, I observed that ‘[y]ou could make a case for activating chips on public safety grounds alone.’”

Pai said that when wireless networks go down during a natural disaster, “smartphones with activated FM chips can allow Americans to get vital access to life-saving information. I applaud those companies that have done the right thing by activating the FM chips in their phones.”

And then the line that is going to get folks at NAB, NextRadio/Emmis and other FM advocates cheering:

“Apple is the one major phone manufacturer that has resisted doing so,” Pai wrote. “But I hope the company will reconsider its position, given the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. That’s why I am asking Apple to activate the FM chips that are in its iPhones. It is time for Apple to step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first. As the Sun Sentinel of South Florida put it, ‘Do the right thing, Mr. Cook. Flip the switch. Lives depend on it.’”

Apple and Tim Cook generally have seemed to avoid the topic in public; and today, according to Bloomberg, an Apple spokeswoman declined comment.

Pai’s remarks come in the context of recent major weather-related events in the country as well as that recent newspaper editorial. Radio broadcasters have long highlighted the importance of OTA broadcasts in times of crisis, both for emergency alerting and for vital news and services information. Proponents of FM reception in phones — including the NAB, the New Jersey Broadcasters Association, and Emmis-owned NextRadio, the app that relies on that reception capability — have echoed these arguments for activating the chips. (AM unfortunately has always been a trickier issue in phones, in part for technical reasons.)

In his first public appearance as chairman in February, as RW reported, Pai said, “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.” He cited the arguments that consumers would “love” access to favorite content over-the-air while using less battery life and less data, and observed that Mexico has a much higher percentage of top-selling smartphones that provide local FM tuning. (Read that speech in its entirety here.)

Asked by Radio World in March whether he had reached out to Apple on this issue, Pai had replied, “I haven’t yet had a chance to do that, but hopefully we’ll have a chance to keep spreading this message, which I think is a good one for consumers and companies alike to hear.”

Commissioners clearly have been hearing from chip supporters in the recent past. Commissioner Mignon Clyburn made indirect reference to this in her own Radio World interview this year; in response to a question about smartphones, she replied, “I’ve been talking with some of your [industry] members, and you know who they are, for a number of years. One from Indiana, but I won’t mention his name … for a while,” an apparent reference to Jeff Smulyan of Emmis or Paul Brenner of NextRadio.

And what about the concern that some Apple models now come without a headphone jack, and thus a headphone cord could not be used as an antenna? Paul Brenner of NextRadio played this concern down when asked about it last year, saying a physical connection out to any wire can be used by the device as an antenna, and that designs would adapt. Apple omitting a headphone jack, he said then, was “not a show-stopper.”