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FCC chairman Ajit Pai wants Apple to turn on the FM chip in its phones so those in a disaster area, such as hurricane-decimated Puerto Rico, could get radio broadcasts.
The chairman noted that Apple is the one major smartphone maker that has resisted activating FM chips already built-into the devices.
“When wireless networks go down during a natural disaster, smartphones with activated FM chips can allow Americans to get vital access to life-saving information,” he said in a statement Thursday. “I hope (Apple) will reconsider its position, given the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.”
Hurricanes Maria and Irma have left 91% of Puerto Rico without cell phone coverage,
Most smartphones including many iPhones have chips inside that support Bluetooth, Wi-Fi and FM, says Wayne Lam, an analyst with tech research firm IHS Market. “As components keep getting smaller, they start integrating functionality. It’s an extra feature that comes along for the ride.”
But the latest Apple iPhones — the iPhone 7 and 8 models — do not have those chips, nor do they have antennas designed to support FM signals.”It is not possible to enable FM reception in these products,” the company said in a statement.
Apple said 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.
“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,” it said.
It did not explain why it had removed FM radio chips from the phones.
On Android phones, you can find a variety of FM apps in the Google Play store. When you are using the app, the headphone cables serve as an antenna. “Apple has never really opened up that part of the hardware for developers, so it’s hard to say if we can go back in time and implement (FM) on them,” Lam said.
FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has also backed FM chip activation in smartphones, as does Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who concurred when asked about the issue.
“The bottom line is consumers need critical information in times of emergency,” Nelson said. “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.”
Should the Federal Communications Commission enforce FM playback on phone makers, “it’s not that difficult to implement,” Lam said. “But in the case of an emergency, can everybody find their earbuds? It’s not very elegant in that sense.”
Follow USA TODAY reporter Mike Snider on Twitter: @MikeSnider.