Sep 28, 2017
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FCC chairman calls on Apple to unlock FM radio on iPhones in wake of hurricanes

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Including built-in FM radio support for smartphones might seem like a mere oddity in this age of YouTube and Spotify, but communities ravaged by hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and especially Maria are finding how useful old-fashioned radio can still be when the usual cellular towers are knocked out of commission.

But iPhone users don't have access to this feature. That's not because it's not there — FM functionality is built into every Qualcomm and Intel chip used for the iPhone's Wi-Fi and cellular capabilities — but Apple hasn’t enabled it.

Even more troublesome, they're essentially the only smartphone users who don't have access to it. To date, Apple is the only major manufacturer that hasn’t unlocked the feature.

Now, though, Federal Communications Chairman Ajit Pai has issued a statement specifically calling on Apple to “step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first.”

Pai commended the companies who’ve already activated FM chips in their phones, emphasizing that, “FM chips can allow Americans to get vital access to life-saving information” when wireless networks go offline.

“In recent years, I have repeatedly called on the wireless industry to activate the FM chips that are already installed on almost all smartphones sold in the United States,” Pai said in his statement.

“In fact,” he said, “in my first public speech after I became Chairman, I observed that ‘[y]ou could make a case for activating chips on public safety grounds alone.’”

Connected during disasters

This criticism of Apple is nothing new. Back in 2014 the National Association of Broadcasters released a report questioning the absence of FM radio on iPhone, and then as now, Apple declined to comment. 

One reason Apple might be keeping built-in FM radio off on iPhones is because the feature might discourage customers from buying from iTunes or subscribing to its Apple Music streaming service.

Yet much of the imagery coming out of the destruction surrounding the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria emphasizes the severity of this need. 

Two of the photos in a powerful recent photo essay from The Atlantic, for instance, depict Puerto Ricans gathering around the island’s few remaining working towers, struggling to get a signal.

Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters, also criticized Apple in a statement to Bloomberg today.

“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,“ Wharton said. “The notion that Apple or anyone else would block this type of information is something that we find fairly troubling.“

But the scarcity of cellular service in Puerto Rico prevents further complications. Even if Apple does issue a patch enabling the chips, there’s a good chance the people who need the service the most won’t even be able to download it.

Yesterday, the FCC released a report stating that 91.1% of cellular sites in Puerto Rico are out of service.

As for Apple, it’s remained silent on the issue. It's worth noting, though, that Pai's call comes on the same day Apple updated its newsroom to report that Apple employees and customers have raised more than $13 million for hurricane relief efforts, including $1 million for Puerto Rico. No mention was made of the FM chip controversy.

We’ve asked Apple for a statement and will update this article if we hear back.

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