Archive - October, 2014

Why the FCC should turn on FM radio chips in mobile phones

Having radio chips activated in their mobile phones would enable users to listen to over-the-air radio in the event of an emergency. Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry,  photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist Communications

Having radio chips activated in their mobile phones would enable users to listen to over-the-air radio in the event of an emergency. Photo illustration by Kathleen Barry, typhoon aftermath photo by Mike DuBose, United Methodist Communications

When Typhoon Yolanda caused extensive damage in the Tacloban region of the Philippines a year ago, it wiped out major parts of the communications infrastructure. Mobile phone and Wi-Fi towers were so damaged these communications systems were inoperable.

The result was that people across the region were unable to communicate, and those who came to provide emergency aid were unable to locate people in great distress. The situation led the Philippines government to issue a request for assistance to rebuild the communications infrastructure.

April Mercado, United Methodist Communications staff in the Philippines, told the Game Changers Summit last month that in the earliest days of the emergency the most reliable means of communication was radio.

In most emerging nations, radio is the most effective and efficient way to reach broad numbers of people, and it becomes even more important during emergencies. For example, The United Methodist radio station, “Voice of Hope,” in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire, remained on the air during an armed conflict in the country a few years ago, one of the few stations to continue broadcasting during that crisis.

In the United States, floods, ice storms, tornadoes and other disasters often require emergency communications, so emerging nations aren’t alone in using radio for good ends.

I reflected on this recently when I learned that mobile phones in the U.S. come with a chip that will receive FM radio signals over the air, but many service providers disable them. The chips allow mobile phones to act like a transistor radio, without data charges.

As we move to all-in-one handheld devices such as tablets, cellphones and “phablets,” this function becomes more important, it seems to me. As a resident in an area where Internet service is frequently down, and satellite television can be interrupted by thunderstorms, over-the-air radio is a useful way to get important information.

As a result of this concern, I wrote to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler to request that the Federal Communications Commission consider requiring these chips to be activated on smartphones sold in the U.S., so that we all can benefit from this important function. It’s a feature that we should have not only for convenience, but for our well-being when emergency circumstances demand it.

Here is the letter:

Dear Chairman Wheeler,

I write to request favorable action by the FCC to require mobile telephone manufacturers and operators to provide access to FM radio through mobile devices including smartphones, tablets and “phablets.”

This is a matter of public safety in addition to convenience for individual users of these devices. A report from the International Telecommunication Union states the need succinctly:

“For many decades, radio and television broadcasters have been the primary source of critical information to the public in the event of disasters such as tornadoes, hurricanes, tropical storms, floods, snowstorms, earthquakes, tsunamis, solar storms, terrorist violence, mass transportation accidents, and industrial or technological catastrophes. This important role can be both before an impending event and also after an event. On these occasions, radio and television broadcasting provides reliable point-to-everywhere delivery of essential information and safety advice to the public, to first responders and others via widely available consumer receivers, both mobile and fixed. In many cases the major broadcasting facilities have their own independent power supply facilities to maintain communications even if utility supplies are lost.”

Examples abound of the need for this service on mobile devices from ice storms in Kentucky to tornadoes in the Midwest to hurricanes on the Gulf Coast. When residential power is out, often cell service and Internet are also out.  The only battery device may be a smart phone, but it is useless without cell service.  With an activated radio chip, however, it will function similar to a transistor radio providing people with information essential for survival.

This includes where food, water and shelter are available; where FEMA and other humanitarian assistance is located; when there are curfew hours and road closings; when there are school closings and the status of hospital physical plants.

Portable radios as we have known them are important, but society is depending more and more on smart devices as a primary tool to receive information. Today, societies the world over are transitioning to mobile handset devices for their information. FM receivers in smart devices should be activated as a matter of public safety just as air bags and seatbelts in automobiles were required years ago. While information increasingly flows through mobile devices, broadcast services remain the most effective and efficient means of reaching the widest audience.

In an emergency, the role of broadcasters is even more important because they serve local communities with essential, fact-checked, reliable information, and they distribute it to all within the broadcast signal.

When cell signals are not in service, over-the-air FM radio is the most reliable means of delivering information in critical events. It is our experience at United Methodist Communications, which is the global communications agency for The United Methodist Church with audiences in the Philippines, Eastern and Central Europe, Africa, and the United States, that radio is a key tool to deliver life-saving information. Our experience in Typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines and in the current Ebola crisis in West Africa reinforces the value of radio as a means of informing persons about circumstances essential to their well-being in emergency situations such as those the ITU report identifies.

For these important reasons, I request the FCC mandate that over-the-air radio chips be activated in mobile phones in the United States so that FM radio is available to all who desire and who would benefit from this important service.

Sincerely,

Larry Hollon

General Secretary

United Methodist Communications

 

 

No one should live outside the web of connectivity

The national health systems of Sierra Leone and Liberia are barely functioning, and increasing pressure on them risks a complete meltdown, according to reports in popular media. Coordination of services to contain the Ebola outbreak remains fragmented and under resourced.

A woman uses a smartphone in contact tracing, a method used to trace people who have had contact with Ebola patients. Video screen shot, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

A woman uses a smartphone in contact tracing, a method used to identify new Ebola cases quickly and isolate patients as soon as they show symptoms.  Video screen shot, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In an article as tragic as it is frightening, Adam Nossiter of the New York Times details how people are dying from Ebola in Makeni, Sierra Leone. The article reads like the script from a horror movie with no happy ending in sight.

The story sent shivers down my spine, and it coincided with my return from a meeting near London of IT and communications professionals with major international agencies gearing up to meet this crisis at scale. The fact is, the response is far behind the spreading virus, and while this is belatedly being addressed, it will take long-term, sustained attention to bring the contagion under control. Time is an enemy, and the complications of scaling up are many.

International agencies are dealing with major crises from Syria to Gaza to the Central African Republic. The World Health Organization currently lists eight Grade 3 emergencies, which are situations that require substantial international response. They are: Central African Republic, Guinea, Iraq, Liberia, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, South Sudan and The Syrian Arab Republic.

This means the various agencies designed to deal with such emergencies were already being stretched before Ebola struck. Equally frustrating is the fact that this crisis graphically demonstrates how the lack of reliable communication today is a matter of life and death, but communication infrastructure lags behind human need.

The tipping point

Nearly every input imaginable is needed for this crisis from skilled personnel, to vehicles to transport the ill and the deceased, to a supply chain for materials, to communications for internal operations and external messaging, to technical personnel to support the technology, to facilities for isolating ill persons and myriad other physical and personnel needs.

What is called for now is urgent placement of skilled staff in the affected regions, facilities to support isolation and treatment, and material resources such as gloves, disinfectants, medications, body bags, protective suits and equipment.

But too many leaders, including global leaders and church leaders, have underestimated the significance of communication and the infrastructure necessary for it to work. We have reached a tipping point in our understanding of humanitarian aid. It is no longer limited to food, shelter, clothing, water and medicines. Lack of communications capacity has exacerbated this crisis.

The ability to communicate and the quality of the information delivered are matters of life and death. Pure and simple, communication is aid.

And humanitarian aid, like so many other necessary daily functions, is becoming digitized. This means that globally, communication infrastructure, messaging and personal communication devices will become essential for daily affairs, much as they already are in the global North.

Text messages, such as this one from United Methodist Communications, represent the new form of digital aid being used in the international response to the Ebola virus outbreak. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

Text messages, such as this one from United Methodist Communications, represent the new form of digital aid being used in the international response to the Ebola crisis. Photo by Kathleen Barry, United Methodist Communications.

A paradigm shift

In the short-term future, we will see a paradigm shift toward digital humanitarian aid through the use of smart cards and mobile services. And this is changing older methods of providing aid because the new model is faster, more efficient and more economical, and it will reach more people. It also makes aid customizable and personal. And this means it is measurable, and the delivery system can be made more accountable.

This may seem like a pipe dream, but we are, in fact, already seeing how digital tools are being used in refugee settlements in the Middle East, and this will only grow as the systems become perfected.

The Ebola crisis is demonstrating that in this new age of pervasive technology, no one on the planet is so isolated that they can exist outside the global web of connectivity that delivers life-enhancing, and life-saving, information. And it is demonstrating that those concerned with humanitarian assistance to people in crisis situations must be at the forefront of this new era of technology for good because to do otherwise is to allow events to spiral out of control, with tragic results.

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The Foundation for United Methodist Communications has established an emergency communications fund. With your help, we can provide communications support in the event of a crisis or disaster. Donate here.