BY MELANIE WADE –
A sharp debate is growing between the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Apple, Inc., in relation to an FM radio chip that would allow cell phones to “act like radios” allowing owners to tune in to FM radio during natural disaster situations, even when wifi and cell service are unavailable. Most phones now come with the chip activated and an internal antenna, however, Apple, Inc., deactivated the chip on their older models and has stripped the function from their iPhone 7 and iPhone 8, causing a controversy between the company, avid radio advocates, and the FCC.
Advocates of the FM radio chip say that during a disaster that wipes out all communications, radio is the only way to send or receive information. During Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, for example, radio waves were the only source of information for residents to learn what was happening, where they could seek help, etc.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, stated recently to Radio World that the chip, in his opinion, is a matter of public safety. “In recent years, I have repeatedly called on the wireless industry to activate the FM chips that are already installed in almost all smartphones in the United States. And I’ve specifically pointed out the public safety benefits of doing so. In fact, in my first public speech after I became Chairman, I observed that ‘you could make a case for activating chips on public safety grounds along.’”
The Sun-Sentinel newspaper in Florida has written extensively on the matter and has reached out to Apple, Inc., with many questions, as has TechCrunch. Critics believe Apple refuses to activate the chip so that users must seek their apps and products to gain information requiring data. In one statement to the reporters, an Apple spokesperson said, “Apple cares deeply about the safety of our users, especially during times of crisis, and that’s why we have engineered modern safety solutions into our products,” the company said in a statement. “Users can dial emergency services and access Medical ID card information directly from the Lock Screen, and we enable government emergency notifications, ranging from Weather Advisories to AMBER alerts.”
As many smartphone manufacturers have activated the chips, including Samsung, Motorola, and LG, Apple has 40% of the market in the U.S. smartphone category, leaving a large swath of the country with no way to attain information in the case of a disaster. “Broadcasters are providing information on how to evacuate quickly, where flood waters are raging, how to get out of harm’s way if there’s a tornado or a hurricane,” said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. “The notion that Apple or anyone else would block this type of information is something that we find fairly troubling.”
At present, until regulations are mandated requiring smartphone manufacturers to install and activate the chip, it is up to the consumer to purchase a phone with an activated chip to ensure they can maintain an information stream during a disaster. Currently, there is no legislation being pushed through, and no regulations in sight.