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FCC chief Ajit Pai wants Apple to stop disabling FM radio chips in iPhones

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Samuel Axon

Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai on Thursday issued a public statement requesting that Apple activate the disabled FM radio chips within its iPhones.

Pai made his appeal in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, which have wreaked havoc on communities across the US and beyond in recent weeks. The FCC chief’s framed the activation of the FM radio chip as a boon to public safety, since FM radio signals are generally easier to receive in times of emergency when compared to Internet-based services provided over a cellular network.

Though it may not be obvious at first blush, most smartphones have the ability to stream local FM radio stations directly. Chipmakers like Qualcomm and Intel have long baked FM radio tuners into the chips that enable Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity in iPhones and other handsets.

But many smartphone manufacturers and mobile carriers have disabled that function. Part of that, critics say, is because having a free alternative may discourage customers from using and thus paying for services that demand mobile data. (Apple Music included.) All of this has led to a years-long tiff between the broadcasting and consumer electronics industries, one that has involved Congressional hearings in the past.

In recent years, however, more and more mobile companies have started activating the chip. Manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Motorola, and HTC all sell handsets with the FM tuner enabled, and the four major carriers have provided some level of support. It’s still far from ubiquitous—many higher-end phones still do not allow the functionality, and Verizon generally doesn’t sell as many FM-enabled devices as its peers—but there’s been some change.

Apple is the most prominent company to have never gotten on board, though, which explains why Pai singled the company and Apple CEO Tim Cook out on Thursday.

“It is time for Apple to step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first,” Pai said. “As the Sun Sentinel of South Florida put it, ‘Do the right thing, Mr. Cook. Flip the switch. Lives depend on it.’”

Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Pai has beaten the FM radio drum several times in the past; he made a more general call for phone makers to open up the FM chip while speaking to the North American Broadcasters Association this past February. Another broadcaster lobbying group, the National Association of Broadcasters, called out Apple for disabling the FM chip in a statement to Bloomberg on Thursday.

While Pai is trying to ratchet up the pressure on Apple, he isn’t likely to force the company to change its ways any time soon.

“As a believer in free markets and the rule of law, I cannot support a government mandate requiring activation of these [FM] chips,” Pai said in the aforementioned February speech. “I don’t believe the FCC has the power to issue a mandate like that, and more generally I believe it’s best to sort this issue out in the marketplace.”

Pai’s approach to net neutrality and various other consumer issues reaffirm that free-market ideology. Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler likewise did not support the idea of an FCC mandate to open up the FM chips in smartphones.

Still, this seems to be an issue with some level of bipartisan support. “The bottom line is consumers need critical information in times of emergency,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) in a statement. “If technologies, such as radio chips, exist that will help do that during times of emergencies, then companies should be doing everything in their power to employ their use.”

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