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FM in Cellphones Emerges, Slowly

Meanwhile, retailers feature radio in MP3 players, FM car transmitters

Radio functionality may not be ubiquitous in cellphones; but it is indeed available if you look for it. That’s one conclusion we can draw when reviewing options offered by electronics companies this holiday shopping season.

Here’s a sampling of how radio showed up in a buffet of consumer electronics devices in this 2010 holiday sales season. We featured HD Radio and Internet radios in the Dec. 1 issue.

Broadcast industry attention is strong right now on FM in cellphones, so Radio World surveyed the websites of T-Mobile, AT&T Wireless, Verizon Wireless and Sprint/Nextel, the four U.S. carriers listed in a recent report by NAB’s FASTROAD technology advocacy program (see sidebar). We sought to find out what new FM-enabled cellphones wireless carriers are featuring this holiday.

Cellphones & FM

New from T-Mobile is the Motorola Defy with Motoblur, featuring messages from the user’s friends with integrated social networking updates. The user can filter feeds and customize widgets and the screen display. In addition to FM radio, the device features a 5 megapixel camera and is 3G-capable, according to T-Mobile, which lists the phone as free after a Web-only $99.99 discount, though the purchaser still needs to buy a two-year service contract.

Motorola Defy

mytouch 4G-Black

The T-Mobile myTouch 4G-Black offers FM radio in the “media room,” which also features MobiTV, Slacker Radio and YouTube. The phone also features two cameras and video capture and playback. The cellphone is $199.99 with a two-year contract.

In addition to FM radio, the HTC HD7, a new Windows Phone 7 from T-Mobile, features an HD camcorder and is 3G-capable. The user can send a message or a photo to any wireless phone or e-mail address or stay connected using “always-on” social networking, T-Mobile says. The unit sells for $199.99 after discounts and a two-year service contract.

The Nokia 5230 Nuron from T-Mobile features FM radio and a 2 megapixel camera; it is 3G-capable. After discounts, a refurbished device, which T-Mobile says is “like new,” is free with a two-year contract.

Of six new smartphones offered by AT&T Wireless, one features FM radio, the Sharp FX. Listed under “music” features, AT&T lists both “built-in” FM radio as well as streaming radio. The device also features mobile TV and video and a two megapixel resolution camera. It features a 3G high-speed data and voice capability for an additional charge. AT&T Wireless is offering the Sharp FX for $119.99 with a two-year contract. This phone requires a minimum $20 messaging service or a qualifying combination of messaging and data services.

Nokia 5230 Nuron

Sharp FX

Samsung Omnia II
Verizon Wireless has the fewest FM-enabled cellphones of the four carriers, according to the recent Insight report for NAB FASTROAD. Indeed, of the 25 newest smartphones Radio World found listed by the carrier online or at retail locations, none mentioned FM as a feature.

According to the report, the Samsung Omnia II being offered by Verizon has a working FM radio chip; however a description of the phone’s features on the Verizon Wireless website doesn’t mention FM. The device lists for $49.99. Verizon boasts with its Swipe Technology, the Omnia II helps the user “type” up to 50 words per minute without lifting a finger.

Of nearly 30 “feature” phones from Verizon Wireless, one model has operable built-in FM radio. In addition, the Kin Two also includes an 8.0 megapixel camera and HD video capability. This model is only available online; it lists for $49.99 with a two-year contract.

Sprint/Nextel HTC EVO 4G The FASTROAD report says the Sprint/Nextel HTC EVO 4G is an FM radio-enabled handset; however radio is left out of the feature description on the Sprint/Nextel wireless phone site. The manufacturer says the device has two cameras, access to 4G speeds and is a mobile hotspot for up to eight of the user’s Wi-Fi devices. It retails for $199.99 after a $100 mail-in rebate.

The Motorola ROKR EM35 and Nokia 5030, highlighted recently by NAB as examples of how GSM cellphones could implement radio with embedded FM antennas, are not for sale in the United States, according to the trade group. A web search turns up mentions of these phones on European websites.

Our online shopping experience seems to echo what NAB FASTROAD reported about limited availability of activated radio capability in cellphones and limited promotion of the feature by carriers.

The Consumer Electronics Association American has argued that consumers aren’t clamoring for radio in their cellphones. In response to NAB’s push for a congressional mandate of radio in cellphones, part of its negotiations with the Recording Industry Association of America over performance rights, CEA President/CEO Gary Shapiro told news outlets that building FM into cellphones requires an additional antenna, which could add weight and bulk to devices prized for their sleekness. It could also drain battery life more quickly, which could lead manufacturers to remove other features from their devices, he said.

NAB disputes these points.

Mobile devices in the car

In other CE trends, it’s clear from online offerings that consumers want to use mobile music devices in their cars as much as ever.

Consider Crutchfield’s offerings. The supplier targets people who like to install their own car stereos; it is offering 57 iPod/MP3 car adapters from brands like USA Spec, Peripheral, Dice, Alpine, Clarion, Eclipse, Jensen and Pioneer.

An iPod adapter allows the user to connect an iPod to the car stereo, then access playlists with the stereo’s controls. The user can scroll through song titles on the stereo’s larger display (instead of squinting down at the iPod) and route the adapter cable to the glove compartment or center console, so the iPod stays safely out of sight, says Crutchfield on its website. The iPod adapter keeps the iPod charged.

At the upper end of the price range is the USA Spec iPod interface kit for $149.99. The kit includes an auxiliary input for connecting other sources, such as a satellite radio or another type of MP3 player.

The Pioneer CD-IB100ii iPod Interface Adapter from Crutchfield is priced at $79.99 and meant to be used with Pioneer head units.

Jensen’s jLinkUSB cable connects an iPod to certain Jensen multimedia receivers with a USB input. The cable plugs into the iPod’s dock connector and then into the USB input of the stereo, providing audio playback and control from the Jensen receiver. The jLinkUSB cable retails for $29.99.

Chain retailer hhgregg Appliances & Electronics is highlighting the Monster Cable Radio Play 300 Universal Full-Spectrum FM Transmitter at $59.99. “Enjoy your MP3 player, CD player, portable DVD player or even your laptop audio through your car stereo’s FM radio or most FM stations,” says Monster on the hhgregg site.

The wireless FM transmitter tunes in to just about any FM station, except 87.7 and 87.9 MHz, the frequencies on which it rebroadcasts the user’s audio in the car.

Another retailer, Best Buy, is featuring the Sony-Walkman MP3 Player with FM radio and 4 GB of storage; it lists for $69.99. The 2-inch LCD screen, earbuds and a USB cable are included. This Walkman features a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that provides up to 50 hours of music playback.

Monster Cable Radio Play 300 Universal Full-Spectrum FM Transmitter

GPX Portable FM Scan Radio
At $49.99, Best Buy also offers the Archos-15 Vision 4 GB MP3 Player with FM radio. It stores up to 2,000 songs and up to 40,000 photos. The Archos unit has up to 10 hours of battery life and includes eMusic and Rhapsody music management software.

For those really watching their pennies, chain retailer hhgregg Appliances & Electronics offers the GPX Portable FM Scan Radio. Marketing the device as a radio to take to ballgames, hhgregg lists this radio online for $4.97. It features a stereo headphone jack and requires two AAA batteries.

Also, hhgregg says the Sansa Clip+ MP3 player makes a big sound and offers several features in a tiny package. Listen to up to 500 songs on the 2 GB player as well as FM radio. The device, now $39.97, also has a long-life 15-hour battery, voice recorder and memory card slot.

Finally, hhgregg offers the Electro Brand 4 GB MP3 Video Player. Model MP2404CP features FM radio and a camera, and plays music, video, photos and displays text. It retails for $39.97.

Sansa Clip+

Electro Brand 4 GB MP3 Video Player
Radio remains missing from most of the Apple product line.

Only one of Apple’s iPod models (the latest Nano) supports FM radio and a live pause feature. None of Apple’s iPhone, iPod touch or iPad devices includes FM. Apple sells around 70 percent of the market’s MP3 players and has a prime position in mobile phones and tablet devices, according to Apple Insider.

Meanwhile, both the Best Buy Insignia HD MP3 player and Microsoft ZuneHD MP3/video player include embedded FM HD Radio.

In more traditional CE categories, clock radios remain a gift for those sending students off to college or for anyone redecorating a bedroom.

Target offers a range of clock radios, ranging in price from around $60 to just under $10. It was featuring the iLuv Audio System with dual docks for iPod, iPhone and a dual alarm clock for just under $60 in late November online at The device also features AM/FM radio, a radio alarm and an AC power adapter.

One of the most inexpensive clock radios from Target is the GPX AM/FM Digital Clock Radio. Listed at $9.99 online, it features brightness control for the display, a snooze function and an alarm.

A Lack of Promotion and Demand

Some 9.5 percent of cellphones sold in the United States in 2009 contained “activated” FM chipsets (meaning users could hear FM radio on their phones if they knew how to use the feature). But it’s difficult to determine which handsets feature FM because U.S. carriers are not heavily promoting the feature.

That’s according to a report this fall commissioned by NAB’s FASTROAD technology advocacy program and conducted by Insight Research. FASTROAD stands for Flexible Advanced Services for Television & Radio on All Devices.

NAB wanted to know how many cellphones with activated FM radio chips were sold in the U.S. in 2008 and 2009, the latest figures available. It also wanted an estimate of the prospects for FM-enabled cellphones and other hand-held devices in the future.

Insight Research estimates that in 2008, 6 percent of handsets sold in the U.S. were FM-enabled. This increased to about 9.5 percent in 2009.

Though several manufacturers have integrated FM into their cellphones, the only way to know for sure the percent of handsets with an installed FM chip would be to match each handset with its associated chipset, which would require reverse engineering of all handsets on the market in 2008 and 2009, according to Insight. That was beyond the scope of the study.

It does conclude, however, that the number of handsets that have non-activated FM chips could be “significant.”

Compared to other countries, consumer demand for radio in cellphones in the United States is low. Few U.S. carriers have promoted it, the authors wrote, concluding that the feature could “languish” here if there’s no consumer demand and if carriers don’t promote it.

Insight suggested several ways to increase visibility of the radio feature in cellphones, such as broadcasters developing a promotion program with carriers using in-store displays and sales rep training about radio. FM stations could promote the feature on the air and refer listeners to websites containing activation instructions.

— Leslie Stimson