Apple and FCC Get into a Tug of War Over FM Chips

In yet another government vs Apple war, the company was asked by the Federal Communication Commission Chief Ajit Pai to activate FM chips on its smartphones. For the uninitiated, FM chips give smartphones the ability to receive radio signals which may sound like a lost past; but in actuality is quite a critical need during an emergency. In the wake of recent hurricanes and disasters, for example, many people were cut off from receiving critical news because they did not have access to the Internet or the TV. However, if their phones had activated FM chips, they could have gained access to the radio and receive critical information about the storm and its impact. Pretty much like how decades ago, people received information about wars, blackouts and other major happenings through the radio. Our dependency upon the Internet has greatly reduced the power of radio.

Currently, Apple’s latest generation phones do not have FM chips and some carriers in the US do not activate the FM chip. This means that they cannot receive radio signals and are not able to tune into local radio channels. The impact? People in Puerto Rico remained disconnected from the world for days because they had no access to news, no connectivity, and no power.

While Ajit Pai’s demand for Apple to activate FM chips is justified, his lack of knowledge was a huge setback to his cause. The chief of FCC does not know that Apple has long disabled FM chips for its latest generation phones. According to the company, ‘it is not possible to enable FM reception in these products, [however] users of these phones can dial emergency services and access medical ID card information from the phones’ lock screen, and government emergency notifications, from weather advisories to AMBER alerts, also work on these phones.

According to Apple, they, ‘care 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.’ Comparatively, Android phones still have FM running and so you can still download FM apps on the Google Play store, however, Apple has not explained why it had removed the technology entirely.

Although people criticized Ajit Pai for being misinformed about the technology, still many have criticized Apple for disregarding the fact that millions of old Apple phones are still in use. If newer phones don’t have that technology, the older ones should at least be activated. FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel and Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla all concurred with the necessity of having FM chips activated. According to Nelson, ‘The bottom line is consumers need critical information in times of emergency. 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.’

The FCC’s demand does make sense, but the problem is, smartphones have long gone past the age of radio. In Android phones, for example, you have to plug in earbuds to be able to activate FM channels. During an emergency, will someone be able to plug in earbuds? Highly unlikely. The solution has to move beyond FM chips and that’s probably where Apple has got it right.

Farah tries to keep up with the fast-paced tech world by writing about it. She covers latest tech news and writes informative pieces to help her readers make informed decisions about their tech preferences.