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At last, someone's taking Apple to task for, uh, not turning on iPhone FM radio chips

But what of criticism of FCC boss over hurricanes?

By Kieren McCarthy, 28 Sep 2017

Updated FCC boss Ajit Pai has publicly criticized Apple for not turning on the FM radio receivers in every iPhone – calling it a public safety issue.

"In recent years, I have repeatedly called on the wireless industry to activate the FM chips that are already installed in almost all smartphones sold in the United States," the US comms watchdog chairman said today. "And I've specifically pointed out the public safety benefits of doing so."

The issue is all the more relevant, given a series of hurricanes and floods in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico in recent weeks.

"When wireless networks go down during a natural disaster, smartphones with activated FM chips can allow Americans to get vital access to life-saving information," Pai noted. "I applaud those companies that have done the right thing by activating the FM chips in their phones."

He then specifically identifies Apple for criticism: "Apple is the one major phone manufacturer that has resisted doing so. But I hope the company will reconsider its position, given the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria."

He said he wants Apple to "step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first."

While it is true that Pai has been pushing the case for activating FM radios in phones for some time – he was talking about it back in February – the statement today glosses over a whole range of issues with the FCC and Pai himself.

Not the first time

First, while Pai continues his perpetual self-promotion (only I can fix this), the truth is that the FCC has been arguing for years that smartphone companies should turn on their FM chips. There have been Congressional hearings on the issue.

Two-and-a-half years ago there was a big push by the National Association of Broadcasters (the radio industry's lobbyists) to enable FM functionality – and an equally big push back by phone manufacturers and telcos.

The FCC actually has the power to force companies to turn on FM receivers – but the regulator has been wary about taking that approach, even though it insists on the inclusion of certain chips in things like TVs.

Former FCC chair Tom Wheeler told a Congressional hearing in 2015 that "the issue may be resolving itself in the marketplace," in response to a range of companies – including manufacturers LG, HTC and Samsung, as well as telcos T‑Mobile, Sprint and AT&T – turning on their chips. The big hold-out is Apple – hence Pai's statement.

Why doesn't Pai simply propose and pass an FCC rule that requires the chip be turned on? Because he has sold himself as the hands-off regulator. Insisting that phone companies do something that they don't want to would clash with that approach.

Why is there an FM receiver in smartphones in the first place? It does not appear to be an FCC-mandated requirement but simple economics: the most commonly used radio chips in phones – eg, Qualcomm's and Broadcom's – typically include FM circuitry as standard. It would be too inconvenient to use a chip that doesn't feature the electronics so it's simply turned off. Plus, in many countries – mostly poorer and lower-bandwidth countries – the chips are used all the time by people to listen to the radio with their phone.

Why bother?

What's the advantage to having an FM receiver turned on? You can receive FM stations for free, without using up any data, and using far less battery power than streaming services.

Why are some companies refusing to turn them on? Largely because they feel it may conflict with their business models: lower data usage or less use of paid-for music apps. Free radio or $9.99 a month for Apple Music?

However, it may be a bit rich for Pai to call out Apple for not doing enough for public safety.

Just this week, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel called out the FCC – and by implication Pai – for not doing enough to learn from the recent storms and hurricanes.

"After Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Sandy, the FCC held hearings to address network recovery," she tweeted. "Why won't agency do it for Harvey, Irma & Maria?"

She also put out a statement [PDF] on the matter, noting an FCC report on the storms but arguing: "Let's not kid ourselves, this is not enough. When these devastating hurricanes began to batter our coastlines, I called for a full Commission report on these storms. We need to know what worked, what didn't, and where we can improve our communications infrastructure.

"Once we know the facts, we need a full plan for fixing the communications vulnerabilities we are finding, including how to deal with the impact on 911 and the interactions between social media and emergency response."

Anecdotes

Ajit Pai made big play of the work the FCC was doing in Texas when that storm hit and even flew in to see things on the ground, giving repeated anecdotes about what he saw and the people he spoke to in subsequent speeches from Washington, DC, to San Francisco.

However, critics say that fly‑in visits and social media postings are worthless compared to what the FCC can do as a federal regulator. Why isn't Pai pushing for hearings? Because of what will likely result from them.

Rosenworcel wants the FCC staff and commissioners to hold hearings on the ground in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico to learn first-hand what happened. She notes that would result in a report that would "need to include a framework for rebuilding so that the communities with damaged communications are not permanently relegated to the wrong side of the digital divide."

"I hope this agency has the guts to do this," she added.

But as he has repeatedly demonstrated, Pai takes his cue from President Trump and the Republican Party when it comes to politics, and the cable industry when it comes to policies.

Trump caused some degree of amazement when he failed for several days to address the devastation in Puerto Rico and then spoke repeatedly about its debt problems rather than the humanitarian crisis.

Politics

Pai is currently up for reappointment in the Senate – sparking one former FCC staffer, Gigi Sohn, to argue that lawmakers should refuse to do so because of his hands-off regulatory approach and apparent closeness to the cable and telco industries.

There is even a campaign to press Congress into firing him, which, inevitably, has led to an equally angry response from the other side of the political spectrum.

Senator Ron Wyden (D-OR) has gone so far as to accuse Pai of having "betrayed the American consumer at every turn" and having "made a mockery" of the FCC.

Ultimately, Pai is going to do nothing that would cause the taciturn president and conservative Republicans to question his suitability. What he will do, though, is criticize Apple for not turning on FM chips and blame them for risking public safety. Now that is a position you can get behind without actually having to do anything. ®

Updated to add

Apple has said its iPhone 7 and 8 do not have FM radio receivers nor any suitable antennas, so it is not possible to pick up FM broadcasts using their handsets.

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