Everyone carries the Internet in their pocket, yet radio and television remain the primary way people get information in an emergency. So when a disaster knocks out power and takes down cell service–along with those government emergency alerts–you’re going to need a radio to know what’s going on.
A radio? Who owns a radio anymore?
You do. Every smartphone in the world has an FM tuner built in. But here in the US, just one-third of them actually works, even though the Federal Emergency Management Agency says radio can save lives in an emergency. “We know that if Internet networks or cell phone networks go down, FM still works so long as you have a battery to turn the device on,” says agency spokesman Rafael Lemaitre.1
Broadcasters and public safety officials have long urged handset manufacturers and wireless carriers to universally activate the FM chip, and recently brought the campaign to Canada. Carriers have little financial incentive to do so because they profit from streaming data, says Barry Rooke of the National Campus and Community Radio Association. But the wireless industry is coming around, and says anyone who wants a phone with FM radio can find one.
FM capability is baked into the Qualcomm LTE modem inside nearly every cellphone, including iPhones. Tuning in on a smartphone is common in the developing world, so it’s easier to deactivate the chip then install different modems for different markets, says Paul Brenner, CEO of NextRadio, a radio-tuner app for FM-enabled phones. Manufacturers can activate the chip, but the decision to do so typically rests with carriers. If you’re Verizon customer, tough luck. AT&T and T-Mobile are embracing activation for all Android phones, following a move Sprint made in 2013.
Apple remains the biggest holdout. The company did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but critics say it has little incentive to do anything that might undermine Beats One, Apple Music, and other streaming services.
Congress has held multiple hearings on the issue over the years and the FCC could require handset makers and carriers to activate FM capability, but it has been reluctant to act by fiat. Agency chairman Tom Wheeler told lawmakers last year “the issue may be resolving itself in the marketplace.”
Broadcasters aren’t clamoring for the government to step in, either. “Mandating or requiring FM chip activation as some sort of public policy imperative is probably not the way to go,” says Michael Reskin of National Public Radio, which has long urged carriers to let people tune in on their phones. He believes continued pressure from listeners will prompt manufacturers and carriers to come around. Until then, it’s probably a good idea to get a transistor radio, just in case.
1: An earlier version of this story incorrectly spelled the name of FEMA spokesperson Rafael Lemaitre.