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Radio Is Not the Only Industry Seeking Toehold in Mobile Devices

Wireless industry pleased NAB has backed off the push for a mandated FM chip

While I focused on broadcasters in another story about Friday’s House subcommittee hearing about alerting, much of that day was devoted to discussion of a Commercial Mobile Alert Service under development by the wireless industry — a 90-character, geo-targeted alert capability to let consumers carrying a mobile device know there’s an imminent threat.

Lawmakers on the Emergency Preparedness, Response & Communications Subcommittee of the House Homeland Security Committee were especially interested in whether urgent 911 text messages sent from mobile phones and other devices will actually reach 911 operators.

Chris Guttman-McCabe, a lobbyist for CTIA – The Wireless Association, assured lawmakers wireless providers could begin to roll out these features in April 2012.

Testimony on this issue from Jamie Barnett, chief of the FCC’s Public Safety & homeland Security Bureau, was chilling. During the massacre at Virginia Tech in 2007, students hiding from the gunman “had to be quiet, and they were texting 911. Those messages didn’t go through,” Barnett said.

The FCC is preparing a rulemaking on “next-gen 911” to enable the wireless delivery of video, still photos and text messages to 911 operators over mobile devices. Most 911 call centers are not set up for the necessary upgrades, including a broadband connection, that the technology would require, Barnett said, and the commission is trying to get a handle on those costs now.

Of course, the subject of enabling FM chips in mobile phones came up.

Maine Association of Broadcasters President/CEO Suzanne Goucher, an EAS expert testifying on behalf of NAB, said the association isn’t asking for a congressional mandate now, as it was last year, but rather for “a little encouragement to the wireless industry” from lawmakers. Referring to the CMAS system under development by the wireless industry, Goucher said, “If you receive a 90-character text message, wouldn’t it make sense to get all that from one device?”

This is a gem from the former radio news director: “For a tornado warning … how long do I have before the tornado touches down, I grab Toto and get into the cellar?”

Wireless representative Guttman-McCabe was not so moved. He said there are 41 handsets on the market that have an FM chipset. He wasn’t saying if that meant all of those chips actually worked in the United States, as opposed to Europe, where more mobile phones do have working radio chips. He also said radio is one of several industries clamoring to get their capabilities enabled in wireless devices, along with the paging industry and television, which wants DTV chips enabled in mobile devices.

After all those requests, “We decided to let consumers decide” what features they want in their cell phones, said Guttman-McCabe.

He continued: “NAB has moved away from the desire to have a mandate. We think that’s a good thing. We’ve gone from a few handsets [with FM chips] to 41. I think that’s what consumers want.”

Like automakers, wireless providers are only going to include features they think will help them sell the product to consumers.

— Leslie Stimson