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FCC chief wants smartphones’ hidden FM radios turned on, but won’t do anything about it

FCC chief wants smartphones’ hidden FM radios turned on, but won’t do anything about it

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FCC chairman Ajit Pai says he’d love to see more smartphone makers activate the hidden FM radio inside their devices, but he doesn’t think the commission should step in to do anything about it.

Though it’s not well known, most smartphones include an FM radio that would be capable of receiving and streaming local stations. In the United States, the majority of these are disabled — Pai says that as of last fall, only 44 percent of the “top-selling smartphones” in the US had activated FM radios, compared to 80 percent in Mexico.

“I believe it’s best to sort this issue out in the marketplace.”

“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,” Pai said this morning, during a speech at a North American Broadcasters Association event, according to prepared remarks.

Pai has for years been advocating for smartphone manufacturers to enable these radios. In his speech this morning, he even says “you could make a case for activating chips on public safety grounds alone,” since radio could enable phones to receive emergency alerts even when wireless networks are down.

But though he now has the power to do something about it, the new FCC chairman doesn’t plan to. “As a believer in free markets and the rule of law, I cannot support a government mandate requiring activation of these chips,” Pai said. He believes the FCC doesn’t have the power to issue such a mandate and says it’s best for the market to sort things out.

This is no doubt frustrating to radio stations and consumers. Even Pai points out what a benefit this would be, saying “most consumers would love to access some of their favorite content over-the-air, while using one-sixth of the battery life and less data.”

And therein also lies the problem. While FM radio would be a benefit for consumers, it’s also a big drawback for carriers and some phone manufacturers. Every minute someone is streaming FM radio is a minute they’re not using data to stream music — and that cuts into carriers’ data sales. Giving consumers the chance to pick free FM radio also means fewer track sales on iTunes and fewer new subscribers to services like Apple Music.

Radio would cut into data and music profits

That’d be a major downside for Apple, which is probably why it hasn’t embraced FM radio on the iPhone yet. Carriers, on the other hand, have slowly been starting to come around — at this point, with high data caps and the revival of unlimited data, it might even be a benefit for them. AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile are all encouraging smartphone makers to enable FM radio; Verizon has been less vocal about it, but it’s allowed FM radio on some of Samsung’s latest Galaxy devices.

But as Pai’s figures point out, it’s still a limited number of devices that offer support for FM radio. While the politics between carriers and manufacturers is never entirely clear, it seems like it’s in large part up to phone makers at this point.

NextRadio, a broadcaster-backed app for smartphones with enabled FM radios, has been advocating for and keeping track of which phones support radio and on which carriers. You can view that list here.

With Pai ruling out FCC action, the fate of smartphones’ FM radios remains in manufacturers’ hands. There is some reason to be hopeful that wider activation is coming. Just two years, FM radios were only activated in 25 percent of “top-selling” smartphones in the US, according to Pai. “Despite the low numbers,” he said, “we are seeing progress.”