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

 

 

5 Responses to “Why the FCC should turn on FM radio chips in mobile phones”

  1. bthomas October 14, 2014 at 6:04 pm #

    This is a sensible suggestion. For this reason alone it should be well received. However beyond being sensible, it must also make cents for the right people. If it posses any possible threat of competition to commercial interests, then this suggestion is just about guaranteed to be rejected out of hand.

  2. Carol West October 16, 2014 at 9:55 am #

    Mr. Hollon, Keep pushing the FCC to mandate FM reception in mobile devices. The corporate world can advertise how much useful their handheld portable device is for the consumer because in an emergency it can be their lifeline to local news and information. Maybe we will get lucky and enough Commissioners will realize they needed FM reception when they and their family were enduring the latest superstorm to hit their area. And thank you to UM Communications for everything you are doing to educate the public and especially our West Africa brothers and sisters about Ebola. The animated public announcements made by children are brilliant. You and your staff are clearly working on the leading edge to use technology in the most effective ways to reach the most people for the good of All God’s Children!

  3. James Fuller (N7VR) October 16, 2014 at 12:03 pm #

    While this may be a good idea. Some of the information is problematic. First, not all cellphones have FM capability built in. The Broadcom chip is a recent addition and only used in some smartphones at this time. Second, is the software or app to run the FM radio, Who pays for the effort to write and support this across the many platforms? As a Computer consultant, I can see difficulties in the issue.

    I agree that it would be nice to have it turned on in devices the have the capability. As a former ARRL Section Emergency Coordinator for Montana, I know the value of radio during emergencies. However, I would suggest that the FCC only require that devices that have the capability be allowed to be operated. This will avoid a battle over what phones can be sold and what services will be supported. It will also, allow the development to continue to a point where FM could be seen in all phones, not just smartphones ad the price of the Broadcom chips comes down.

    I do know that keeping a Cellphone charged during an emergency is an issue. Using one as an FM receiver does talk from the battery life that must be rationed in an emergency. We need to thing about the use from this stand point, also.

    I wished the solutions were just as easy as requiring some thing under regulations. I do thing that it would be helpful, but do not see it as necessity for emergency communications.

    Jim Fuller
    N7VR
    Computer Technical Consulting Service.

  4. William DeSilva February 26, 2015 at 11:44 am #

    We are just asking that cell phones with the FM chip in them be activated. An emergency can happen at any time without warning, the only resources one has at that time might just be the things in his pocket like a cell phone. I live at the Jersey shore and went over a week without power and TV during Hurricane Sandy. I also live within ten miles of a power plant that is the same design as the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. the only news I received was from a fm radio. I am not asking Verizon or At&t to write a program or an app. There are many out there now. Just let us be able to keep informed durring an emergency.

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  1. A Million and More - TagStation + NextRadio - October 20, 2014

    […] continues in favor of this free and ubiquitous FM radio source. From a global show of solidarity to a letter to the FCC from United Methodist Communications and the NJBA, the voices favor of FM chip activation are […]

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