Everything you need to know about FM radio on your phone

Everything you need to know about FM radio on your phone
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You can get FM radio in your car, so how come you can’t get it on your phone? Well, here’s a news flash, you probably can.

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Most smartphones include integrated chipsets that offer a variety of wireless technologies such as Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and FM radio. But until a few years ago, device manufacturers disabled the function — often at the urging of wireless carriers that wanted customers to stream music and podcasts, and consume more data. An activated FM radio could give consumers a free alternative.

But in the last two years, wireless operators and phone makers have warmed up to the idea of FM radio access. Public safety benefits and the fact that broadcast radio probably would have little impact on people’s use of data are likely the reasons. Major US carriers now allow FM chips to be turned on. Manufacturers like Samsung, LG, HTC and Motorola have activated FM radio on their phones.

But FM radio access is more than just a convenience or fun perk. Devastating hurricanes and wildfires that have affected millions of Americans have shown us vulnerabilities of mobile phone infrastructure, as well as the vital importance communications systems play in times of disaster. That’s also put a spotlight on the strengths of good ol’ broadcast radio for efficiently disseminating information in an emergency.

It’s why Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai last month singled out Apple, the last big phone maker that hasn’t activated its FM chips, to “Flip the switch” and turn on FM radios embedded in iPhones. Apple responded with a half-hearted wish-we-could-but-we-can’t response.

That just confused the issue. So to help Ask Maggie readers understand what this technology is and how it works, I’ve put together this FAQ.

I’ve never heard of being able to get radio through my phone. How’s it work? 

You can easily turn your phone into an FM radio if it has an embedded chipset and the proper circuitry to connect that chip to an FM antenna. All you need is an app like NextRadio, which allows you to tune into the signal, and something to act as antenna such as a headphone or wired-connected speakers.

A portable radio that fits into my pocket is so 1980s. Why would I need it on my phone?

I’ve got one word for you: disasters.

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NextRadio’s app lets you listen to FM radio on your phone.

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Sure it’s great that you can get alerts via text, streaming music from services like Spotify and GoogleMusic, and access the internet from your pocket. But what happens when the network goes dark or has become so overwhelmed from everyone trying to get information that you can’t get through? That’s too often the norm in areas hit hardest by things like hurricanes, earthquakes, fires — or even a shooting.

Three weeks after Hurricane Maria pummeled Puerto Rico, more than 76 percent of cell sites still aren’t functioning, according to the FCC, hampering recovery efforts and putting lives at risk. It’s why officials in Puerto Rico have turned to FM radio stations to help coordinate the pick up and delivery of relief items from ports to communities throughout the island, according to a Time article published last week. There was simply no other way to tell local relief workers where to go and when.

“When truckers heard the call, goods finally started leaving the port,” according to Time.

This is why the International Telecommunications Union, which operates under the umbrella of the United Nations, issued an opinion in March urging all mobile phone makers to include and turn on FM radios on their devices.

Broadcast signals are often the most resilient and reliable form of communication during and after a disaster. While cell phone 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.

“This is a no-brainer in terms of public safety,” said Michael McEwan, director of the North American Broadcasters Association, or NABA, which drafted the opinion the ITU adopted. “You look at what happened during the recent hurricanes. Broadcast radio is the only thing that kept going.”

Which devices can get FM?

Many phone makers, including Samsung, LG, HTC and Motorola, have enabled FM radios in the chipsets. NextRadio has published a list of devices and carriers that support its application, and you can download the NextRadio app. Once you’ve downloaded it, the app will discover the activated chip.

The one big name missing from the list is Apple.

The FCC chairman asked Apple to flip the switch and turn on its FM radios. Is it really that simple?

Unfortunately, no. Apple says its iPhone 7, introduced last year, and this year’s iPhone 8, iPhone 8 Plus and iPhone X don’t use a chipset with an embedded FM radio. (The National Association of Broadcasters disputes this. It claims ABI Research did a “tear down report”  on the iPhone 7 that shows it does include a chipset with FM capability.)

Apple didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Apple says its older phones did use chipsets with FM radios built-in. Paul Brenner, CEO of NextRadio said his company found FM-enabled chipsets in iPhone 4 models through iPhone 6 devices introduced in 2015.

But the Cupertino, California, company says FM functionality wasn’t activated on these phones. They also lacked the necessary connections that would have turned a headset into an FM antenna.

If this is true, Brenner admitted there’s no easy fix even for older devices.

“It’s possible Apple shipped the devices without the connector to the antenna,” he said. “This means it’s not a software upgrade.”

Why would Apple use the integrated chip in older phones and then get rid of it in newer ones?

That’s a good question. NextRadio’s Brenner points out that Apple iPods for years have had FM tuners embedded. In fact, he worked with Apple to develop the technology, he said.

Why is Apple so resistant to FM radio on the iPhone?

Apple hasn’t offered an explanation. But the company does offer a streaming service called Apple Music, which costs $9.99 a month. And in 2015, following the acquisition of the headphone company Beats, it launched its own 24/7 radio station called Beats 1.

What about public safety?

Apple says it “cares deeply about the safety of our users, especially during times of crisis.” The company said it has included several safety features 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 safety feature requires a functioning cellular network, which is exactly what failed for millions of people in the past few months.

The former director of FEMA Craig Fugate was quoted in an op-ed in the Sun Sentinel last week stating “it is irresponsible for Apple to continue resisting this straightforward, common-sense approach to public safety.”

Apple hasn’t responded to this criticism.

What’s next? A government mandate?

So far only Mexico has mandated that phone manufacturers activate their built-in FM radios if it’s included. US regulators support all manufacturers and carriers activating FM chips on phones, but it’s unlikely they’ll go so far as to pass regulations to make it happen.

“I’ll keep speaking out about the benefits of activating FM chips,” FCC Chairman Pai said in a speech to the North American Broadcasters Association in February. “Having said that, as a believer in free markets and the rule of law … I believe it’s best to sort this issue out in the marketplace.”

Still, Brenner said he has faith that Apple will come around, especially given the progress that’s been made with other manufacturers in the past couple of years.

“It’s like when Wi-Fi was getting started,” he said. “Most carriers didn’t activate Wi-Fi on their phones when it first came out. But once one activated it, others followed. And now Wi-Fi is a standard feature.”

CNET an Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers’ wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I’d love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put “Ask Maggie” in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.

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