FCC Urges Apple To Activate Non-Existent FM Radio Chip In iPhones To Assist In Hurricane Aftermath

iPhone X and iPhone 8

Apple is under pressure from various sources to activate the FM radio in iPhone handsets, in the name of public safety. Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai is among those encouraging Apple to "step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first." In his open letter to Apple, Pai brought up a rash of recent natural disasters, including Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. The only problem with is request is that newer iPhone models do not have an FM chip.

The reason for wanting smartphone makers to activate FM chips is so that people who find themselves in an emergency situation can receive potentially life-saving information, as Pai points out in his letter. And that part is correct—emergency services can relaying information on where people should go or what they should in situations like the recent floods that devastated different parts of the country.

"I applaud those companies that have done the right thing by activating the FM chips in their phones. Apple is the one major phone manufacturer that has resisted doing so. But I hope the company will reconsider its position, given the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria," Pai stated in his letter. "That’s why I am asking Apple to activate the FM chips that are in its iPhones. It is time for Apple to step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first. As the Sun Sentinel of South Florida put it, ‘Do the right thing, Mr. Cook. Flip the switch. Lives depend on it.’"

iPhone 8 Plus
Image Source: iFixIt (iPhone 8 Plus teardown)

Pai's statement suggests that Apple and other firms are refusing to flip a so-called switch to activate a free FM service, and instead want them to use a streaming service that costs money. However, that is not the case.

"Apple cares 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. Users can dial emergency services and access Medical ID card information directly from the Lock Screen, and we enable government emergency notifications, ranging from Weather Advisories to AMBER alerts. iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 models do not have FM radio chips in them nor do they have antennas designed to support FM signals, so it is not possible to enable FM reception in these products," Apple said in a statement.

There is no mention of older iPhone models, but according to John Gruber at Daring Fireball, the FM chip that exists in those phones are not connected and also lack antennas. The chip is there because it was part of a commodity component part (Wi-Fi)—iPhones weren't designed to be an FM radio.

"What’s absurd is that the FCC commissioner would take his understanding of the iPhone’s technical capabilities from a newspaper editorial rather than from Apple’s own FCC regulatory filings, which I’m pretty sure would show that they’re not capable of acting as FM radios," Gruber said.

That's a valid point. The FCC tests all radio devices before they can be sold in the US. Pai and his crew should have already been aware of the lack of an FM chip in newer iPhones, and that the chips in older models cannot be activated. And perhaps they did. It should be noted that the FCC has faced criticism over its response to crisis situations. This could be an attempt at shifting blame.