Samuel Axon

Update (9/28/2017 4:25 ET): Apple has responded to FCC chairman Ajit Pai’s call for the company to enable FM radio chips in its devices. In an emailed statement, the company downplayed the need for FM radio broadcasts in times of emergency, and said its iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 devices have neither the chips nor the antennas necessary to allow FM radio reception in the first place. Here’s the full statement:

“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 declined to comment on why newer iPhones are unable to pick up radio broadcasts or if it would enable the FM tuner in pre-iPhone 7 devices in the future. Various smartphones with an active FM chip use the cord from a pair of wired headphones as an antenna, however, so the omission of the headphone jack on the iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 may contribute to those devices’ lack of FM tuner support. Our original story follows.

Original post: Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai on Thursday issued a public statement requesting that Apple activate the disabled FM radio chips within its iPhones.

Pai made his appeal in the wake of Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, which have wreaked havoc on communities across the US and beyond in recent weeks. The FCC chief framed the activation of the FM radio chip as a boon to public safety, since FM radio signals are generally easier to receive in times of emergency when compared to Internet-based services provided over a cellular network.

Though it may not be obvious at first blush, most smartphones have the ability to stream local FM radio stations directly. Chipmakers like Qualcomm and Intel have long baked FM radio tuners into the chips that enable Wi-Fi and cellular connectivity in various handsets.

But many smartphone manufacturers and mobile carriers have disabled that function. Part of that, critics say, is because having a free alternative may discourage customers from using and thus paying for services that demand mobile data. (Apple Music included.) All of this has led to a years-long tiff between the broadcasting and consumer electronics industries, one that has involved Congressional hearings in the past.

In recent years, however, manufacturers like Samsung, LG, Motorola, and HTC have started selling more handsets with the FM tuner enabled, while the four major carriers have provided some level of support. The whole thing is still far from ubiquitous—many higher-end phones still do not allow the functionality, and Verizon generally doesn’t support as many FM-enabled devices as its peers—but there’s been some change.

Apple is the most prominent company to have never gotten on board, though, which helps explain why Pai singled the company and Apple CEO Tim Cook out on Thursday.

“It is time for Apple to step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first,” Pai said. “As the Sun Sentinel of South Florida put it, ‘Do the right thing, Mr. Cook. Flip the switch. Lives depend on it.’”

Pai has beaten the FM radio drum several times in the past; he made a more general call for phone makers to open up the FM chip while speaking to the North American Broadcasters Association this past February. Another broadcaster lobbying group, the National Association of Broadcasters, called out Apple for disabling the FM chip in a statement to Bloomberg on Thursday.

While Pai is trying to ratchet up the pressure on Apple, he isn’t likely to force the company to change its ways any time soon.

“As a believer in free markets and the rule of law, I cannot support a government mandate requiring activation of these [FM] chips,” Pai said in the aforementioned February speech. “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.”

Pai’s approach to net neutrality and various other consumer issues reaffirm that free-market ideology. Former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler likewise did not support the idea of an FCC mandate to open up the FM chips in smartphones.

Still, this seems to be an issue with some level of bipartisan support. “The bottom line is consumers need critical information in times of emergency,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) in a statement. “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.”

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