Millions of Americans use their smartphones every day to stream music from services such as Pandora or Spotify. Others use mobile devices to access podcasts or radio shows. These applications don't work without a connection to WiFi or mobile data. But what if you could listen to that same content on your phone by turning to an old-school technology: FM radio?
That's what the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has just proposed. Unbeknown to many consumers, most smartphones actually come with FM radio receivers already built in. But good luck trying to get a signal from your local station, because these antennas are largely inactive.
“As of last fall, only about 44 percent of the top-selling smartphones in the United States have activated FM chips,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said at an industry conference Thursday. “By comparison, in Mexico that number is about 80 percent.”
Urging companies to switch on FM chips — long supported by the nation's broadcasters — Pai said the move could allow smartphone users to save on their data usage and to get the same emergency alerts that drivers get in their cars. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has said that the ability to get those alerts in a crisis, such as when Internet networks go down, could save lives.
But don't expect the FCC to take any concrete actions forcing carriers such as Verizon or manufacturers like Apple to switch on the chips. The FCC doesn't have the congressionally granted authority to issue a mandate, according to Pai.
Underlying the legal hurdles is a broader fight between industries. With so many Americans turning to streaming media, cellphone carriers profit from all of that data usage. Tech companies and app developers benefit when consumers use their services and platforms. And the wireless industry's top trade association, CTIA, has gone on the record opposing the idea.
So despite Pai's calls for expanding the use of radio on smartphones, this is an issue that may continue to be deadlocked for some time.