Apple urged to activate iPhone’s FM radio chip after hurricanes wreak havoc

“For 19 nonstop hours as Hurricane Irma lashed Florida, disc jockey Nio Fernandez broadcast updates in Spanish from the 92.5 Maxima radio studios in St. Petersburg, fielding updates from those trapped in their homes as wind and rain whipped through the area,” Daniel Flatley reports for Bloomberg. “‘There was a sense of desperation in people’s voices,’ he said of callers to the station. ‘They needed to know what was happening.'”

“Fernandez’s efforts made it possible for listeners who had lost power, cell or internet service — as many in the region had — to keep up with the storm’s progress using FM radio chips embedded in their smartphones,” Flatley reports. “But not iPhone users. Though the phone includes the FM chip, Apple Inc. has chosen not to activate the feature, a move critics say could be putting lives in danger.”

“Senator Bill Nelson of Florida is leading calls for mobile phone manufacturers to activate the FM radio chips embedded in nearly all smartphones. Those exhortations have been mainly directed at Apple, whose iPhone accounts for more than 40 percent of the U.S. smartphone market,” Flatley reports. “Critics say Apple doesn’t want to cannibalize its streaming service by giving iPhone owners access to free radio service over the airwaves. An Apple spokeswoman said the company wouldn’t comment on the matter.”

“FCC Chairman Ajit Pai devoted several minutes of a speech at a February symposium in Washington to the benefits of activating FM radio chips in smartphones. He said that, as of last year, only 44 percent of smartphones in the U.S. had their FM chips activated… At the same time, he has refused to call for a mandate requiring the chip be activated in the phones and has expressed doubt that the FCC would be able to issue or enforce one,” Flatley reports. “Pai renewed his calls for manufacturers to enable the chip during a recent trip to areas of southern Florida devastated by Hurricane Irma, telling a local TV station that the chips were valuable, ‘especially when it’s an emergency.'”

Read more in the full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: If the market demands it, Apple will supply it.

BTW, portable AM/FM radios can be had for under $10 on Amazon.

SEE ALSO:
FCC Chairman Pai encourages activation of Apple iPhone’s built-in FM radio chip – February 16, 2017
NAB calls for Apple to switch on an iPhone feature you didn’t know you had – April 20, 2015

43 Comments

  1. If it can save lives, and it’s already built in, then this is crazy.

    If I’m stuck somewhere, I’ll most likely have my phone before having a ten dollar portable radio. Sometimes emergencies are unplanned.

    I guess Apple thinks they will lose money on Apple Music subscriptions if they do.

    1. Hmmmm, a case of, “how can I disingenuously claim that Apple is putting lives at risk”, me thinks.

      Anyone in the hurricanes path will already have made a purchase of a FM radio if that indeed was a life or death concern…don’t you think?

      1. “Anyone in the hurricanes path will already have made a purchase of a FM radio….”

        Ya, cause we all know that when a hurricane is on its way supplies are readily plentiful everywhere you go. SMH

        1. You know months ahead that hurricane season is coming. RIGHT!?

          One guy fortified his house in Taxas (or is that Texas? hmmmm Tax or Tex? Never can remember, anyway…) and saved it from flood damage. Yeah, the first thing on his mind was, “oh what shall I do? The hurricane is in sight and supplies are running short….run for the hills!!!! ……NOT”.

          1. I think the issue is that it can be used in the event of any disaster, including ones that strike without warning. While you may purchase a cheap radio to have at home, or use your car, there could be times when you’re away from home, without a car and are unlikely to be carrying a full emergency kit. In those cases, having an iPhone with the FM radio enabled may be helpful.

            At this point, I really doubt FM radio competition is an issue at all. Apple allows numerous 3rd party apps and services that compete much more directly.

            I’m thinking the bigger issue would have to do with what else they’d need to do besides “enabling” the chip, as in installing a sufficient antenna, etc…

            1. No, it does not follow.

              One can buy an existing, off-the-shelf chip that has multiple functions, and then only wire up those functions you want.

              Doing this is cheaper than contracting for a custom chip.

              Similarly, one doesn’t pay to wire up an antenna to a subsystem you don’t intend to use. This makes the {smartphone} cheaper to manufacture.

              FYI, there’s a good writeup on this right now on Daring Fireball. In a nutshell, there is no FM chip (wire or not) inside the iPhone 7 & 8 to even be considered.

              Granted, this does raise the question of if there might be an FM-on-a-chip inside earlier models, but there’s still the above point that even if they are inside, it does not automatically follow that they are wired up (including an antenna) to allow them to effectively work.

              -hh

        2. I live in the gulf coast area.
          I was in the path of Irma.
          I have an emergency supply kit that includes a hand crank radio.
          If you don’t have an emergency supply kit and live in a Hurricane area, a fm radio in your phone isn’t going to help you.

    2. I would like to hear from somebody who is in a position to know whether this is even technically possible. There is more to an FM receiver than just the tuner. Even if we assume that the LTE chip can also process FM signals, and that iOS software could be written to allow tuning the chip and processing the signal, what about the antenna?

      The standard monopole antenna on an FM radio is one-quarter wavelength (75 cm). The wire antennas on table radios are more commonly a half-wavelength (1.5 meters). As I understand it, most of the cellphones that provide FM radio reception use the earphone cable as an antenna. Presumably, that requires hardware modifications, not just software.

      The antennas on your iPhone (which is about 14 cm long) are specifically tuned for much higher frequencies/shorter wavelengths. Bluetooth is at about 2.4 Ghz, as is the lower WiFi band; the higher is at 5 Ghz. Most LTE signals are in the 1.7 to 1.9 Ghz range, although CDMA and EDGE may be as low as 800 Mhz. As we all know, FM broadcasts are at about 100 Mhz.

      If Apple were primarily motivated by the desire to force people to subscribe to Apple Music, they wouldn’t allow hundreds of radio-over-IP and other music apps on the App Store.

      1. For completeness, NFC/RFID runs at 13.56 Mhz. A quarter-wavelength antenna would have to be almost 6 meters long. So the “antenna” in a cellphone or other handheld receiver isn’t a radio antenna at all. It is an inductor–a coil in the receiver is excited by the magnetic field generated by a coil in the transmitter a few millimeters or centimeters away. That’s why it is called “Near Field Communications,” and why it is hard to hack into NFC from any appreciable distance with a device less conspicuous than a highway toll plaza.

    3. AM/FM radios have multiple advantages over an FM chip in a phone. People should have one regardless. One advantage ignored by most these days…is AM. AM can have far better range than FM stations, especially during the day or if they maintain a strong signal at night. If local FM stations are knocked out, more distant AM stations may still be accessible.

      Alternate power sources can also make them more reliable over the long term. And many can pick up emergency transmissions. To make a separate portable radio even more useful, one can spend more and get one with a shortwave band, too, though the power requirements are a bigger issue with those.

      Regardless, what seems like a throwaway suggestion to get an AM/FM radio is a good one. It should be bought well before any disaster. Who knows…you might even plug in some externals and listen to the radio on it.

  2. “Critics say Apple doesn’t want to cannibalize its streaming service by giving iPhone owners access to free radio service over the airwaves.”

    Has Apple listened to FM radio in the past couple decades? If they did, they’d know they have nothing to fear.

  3. I wonder if iPhones can even support FM reception. Other phones require wired earphones to act as antenna, the iPhone 7 and up don’t have that port. Lightning cables might provide the same relay functionality, I suppose.

  4. This shit is driven by the broadcast companies who want you to listen to their 33 minutes of commercials every hour so they can pay off the debt from their 5th leveraged buy-out of whatever Right Wing biased media conglomerate.

    To those who need a Radio for an emergency, get a radio- a real one. Cell phones make crappy radios.

    A California Company makes radios that work conventionally, can be powered by hand crank or optional solar. If you have no power and no batteries you can sill listen to the radio.

    https://www.ccrane.com/item/rad_ccradio_obs_kit/100103/cc_solar_observer_and_5v_ac_adapter

    Not even $65 and it is a far better radio than a damn cell phone.

    1. Agreed. If you’ve ever read anything about disaster preparation, a hand-crank FM radio is just a tad more effective than a crappy phone-based capability or even an actual plug-in radio. Since the entire island is without power how do you get electrons to power the FM-abled telephone?

      1. It would definitely help, and for some people, might save lives.

        Analogue radio is probably the most robust terrestrial transmission network on the planet. No amount of weather calamities has ever seriously disrupted, and it is always the last one still standing. Governments around the world use it to inform the population in disaster areas (which hospitals are closed and which work, what to do to signal for help, where is safe to evacuate and where isn’t, etc). In the first hours during the disaster and right after, you may be caught away from your emergency hand-crank FM radio; you’re stuck in traffic, and radio is in your garage; and hurricane changed path and is rapidly approaching. FM radio in your phone may allow you to find out how to safely get home (which roads are flooded/blocked, which aren’t).

        In the aftermath of a disaster, you may be completely out of power. A hand’crancked radio will help, but what would also help is a $50 solar-panel charger for phones. With that, you can have your phone always on you, and still charge it during the daylight.

        In either situation, enabling FM radio on mobile phones would hurt nobody, cost practically nothing, and potentially help save lives. I can’t see any possible reason why not to bother doing it.

    2. If you think all media is right-wing, you clearly live in the land delusion. MSNBC is right-wing? Are you serious? Air America? Oh, that’s right, those hardcore left-wingers went out of business due to low ratings. I’m sure to you, though, it was because of “vast right-wing conspiracy”.

      Thanks for the link on the emergency kit. I’ll order one tonight.

  5. “BTW, portable AM/FM radios can be had for under $10 on Amazon.”

    In this case, how can most the Puerto Ricans order one? And more importantly, how can one even get delivered?

    This is a zero cost solution and will bring the iPhone in line with feature phones from the 1990’s and early 2000. Some older phones even included a built-in FM transmitter to transmit to a nearby FM radio the media being played on the phone. A pre Bluetooth, pre aux cable way to get your MP3 media to play in your vehicle.

    1. For now – I don’t know.

      For the future, let’s go with:
      “I live in an area which has a fair chance of getting flattened by a hurricane. I think I’ll keep a stock of water, food and first-aid supplies, and a hand-cranked radio.”

  6. I have not really agreed with davgreg much, but he is correct in this case. Most customers wouldn’t even use the feature, and any whining you hear about it is typically from entrenched radio advertiser interests. In the case of Puerto Rico, most of their radio towers were destroyed during the hurricane so it wouldn’t help at all for the majority of the country.

  7. Why does Apple put an FM chip in iPhones in the first place? It seems strange that they would include the chip but not activate it. I’m sure the reason has nothing to do with concerns about cannibalizing their streaming service. That chip has been in phones years before Apple even thought about a streaming service. The only reference I could find to resistance to turning on the chip was voiced by the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, which has more to do with cellular carriers. I’d like to know more about why these chips weren’t activated after Superstorm Sandy. There was a call to do so back then, as well.

    1. The FM Chip is part of the Chip set they use for Cell. My guess is the reason they don’t activate it is there is probably a license fee for it’s use and Apple is not 1 to share the wealth if they think they don’t have to.

  8. My iPhone, like many others, has an aluminium case. Even if Apple were to somehow remotely enable the FM receiver element within the Murata RF chip, what do you think the reception would be like?

    Hint … radio signals don’t travel through metal at all well and the chip isn’t connected to the headphone socket ( if present ), so you can’t use the headphone lead as an antenna.

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