You probably didn’t know this, but most smartphones have an FM radio inside of them. And while, in a world where you can unlock your phone with your face, this may seem like the most useless piece of information ever, it can be life-saving during major disasters.
When cell-phone service is lost in an area due to a major storm or blackout, cell phones with activated FM chips can easily be used as radios, allowing people access to potentially life-saving information. In a statement this morning, FCC chairman Ajit Pai called on phone manufactures to “activate the FM chips that are already installed in almost all smartphones sold in the United States,” citing the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.
Pai specifically called out Apple, stating that it is “the one major phone manufacturer that has resisted doing so,” however, Apple, in a statement, responded that this claim was misleading, as the “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.” (And although Apple has made no official statement on the status of FM chips in iPhones from 2014 and earlier, John Gruber of the Daring Fireball posits that these older models have also had their chips disabled.)
While it’s certainly a bit bizarre that Pai, the chairman of the FCC of all people, would get such a significant detail wrong, his message at its core rings true: FM chips benefit the public during times of emergency and should be included (and active) on every device. It’s strange that Apple is so steadfastly against this industry-standard addition. The majority of the big wireless carriers support FM-radio activation, and a whole host of other smartphone companies (all of which are significantly less profitable than Apple) also currently offer the feature.
While FCC action has been ruled out for the time being, it’s undeniable that FM-radio waves are one of the most effective ways of distributing information to the public in an emergency. As part of his plea to Apple, Pai reiterated that “[y]ou could make a case for activating chips on public safety grounds alone.”
Update September 28th, 10:56PM ET: This story has been updated to include a statement from Apple.