FCC tells Apple to turn on iPhone FM radio chip to save lives during disasters

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has a message for Apple CEO Tim Cook: "Flip the switch" and turn on FM radios embedded in iPhones.

In the wake of three major hurricanes that have wiped out communications for millions of people over the past month, Pai issued a statement Thursday urging Apple, one of the largest makers of cellphones in the U.S., to  "reconsider its position, given the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria." FM radios that are already included in every phone could be used to access "life-saving information" during disasters, he said.

For years, the majority of smartphones sold in the U.S. have included FM radios, but most of them have been turned off so that you couldn't use the function. Why? Mobile customers would be a lot less likely to subscribe to streaming music services if they could just listen to traditional, free broadcast radio. This incentive is especially true for Apple, which has a streaming music service.

In recent years, phone manufacturers have begun to turn on the feature. Today, several makers like Samsung, HTC, Motorola and LG have FM capability working, including on some of their most popular devices, like the Samsung Galaxy S8 and the Moto G5 Plus. But Apple continues to hold out.

"Apple is the one major phone manufacturer that has resisted doing so," Pai said.

Apple said in a statement that the "iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 models do not have FM radio chips in them nor do they have antennas designed to support FM signals, so it is not possible to enable FM reception in these products." That said, the iPhone 6s and iPhone 6s Plus introduced in 2015 do have an FM radio as part of its chipset, but the radio is not activated nor is it attached to an antenna that would allow it to receive a signal.

Still, Apple says it "cares deeply about the safety of our users, especially during times of crisis." The company said it has included several safety solutions in its products, such as allowing users to dial emergency services and access medical ID card information directly from the lock screen of its iPhones. It also enables government emergency notifications, ranging from weather advisories to AMBER alerts.

Of course, each of these safety features requires a functioning cellular network, which is exactly what failed for millions of people in the hardest hit areas following the hurricanes. A week after Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, more than 90 percent of cell sites are still not functioning, according to the FCC.   

Broadcast signals are often the most resilient and reliable form of communication during and after a disaster. While cellphone infrastructure is often knocked out in the wake of a big storm, broadcast signals, which use low frequencies and can travel much further distances and penetrate through obstacles, usually remain up. Radio broadcasts are often the best way to get critical information to the public during a disaster.

Pai's statement comes as some lawmakers have also begun to put pressure on Apple to turn on its FM radios. Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida is leading the charge. While touring the damage, Nelson told a local TV station in Fort Myers that he was considering writing phone manufacturers.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents radio station owners, has for years lobbied lawmakers and the wireless industry on this issue. The group said Thursday it's encouraged by Pai's support and it's joining him and Nelson in urging Apple to acknowledge the public safety benefits of activating its FM radios in iPhones.

"Local broadcasters are a lifeline information source in times of crisis, as Chairman Pai, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and other members of Congress and the FCC have noted," the group said in a statement.

Pai, a Republican, has been reluctant to mandate cellphone makers offer FM radio access. Instead, he's hoping to appeal to Apple's sense of duty to promote public safety.

"I am asking Apple to activate the FM chips that are in its iPhones," Pai said. "It is time for Apple to step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first."

This article originally appeared on CNET on September 28, 2017, titled, "FCC chief tells Apple to turn on iPhone's FM radio chip."

A version of this story originally appeared on cbsnews.com.

© 2017 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved.


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