FCC Chairman Pushes for FM Radio in Smartphones

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Smartphones have lots of fancy features, but there's one pretty basic thing that most handsets in the US can't do: play the radio. New FCC Chairman Ajit Pai is pushing to change that.

"It seems odd that every day we hear about a new smartphone app that lets you do something innovative, yet these modern-day mobile miracles don't enable a key function offered by a 1982 Sony Walkman," Pai said at a North American Broadcasters Association event in Washington, D.C. on Thursday.

The majority of smartphones sold in this country contain FM chips, he pointed out. But just 44 percent of the top-selling smartphones in the US last fall had activated FM chips.

"You could make a case for activating chips on public safety grounds alone," he said. "The former head of our Federal Emergency Management Administration has spoken out in support of this proposal. The FCC has an expert advisory panel on public safety issues that has also advocated enabling FM radio chips on smartphones."


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The problem, according to a July Wired story, is that phone manufacturers don't have much incentive to turn them on. In fact, they have an incentive not to. Carriers, for instance, profit when you use up all your data streaming music. Apple, meanwhile, "remains the biggest holdout," the report notes. Critics say Cupertino doesn't want to "undermine" Apple Music and other streaming services.

Pai this week argued that people want to listen to the radio on their smartphones and said that as more and more people are able to, demand for activated FM chips will grow. He does not, however, think companies should be forced to turn them on.

"As a believer in free markets and the rule of law, I cannot support a government mandate requiring activation of these chips," he said. "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."

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