When the Big One strikes California, FM radio likely will be your only way to stay informed about the disaster. While many may think they need a bulky radio, most smartphones — including iPhones — have FM radio chips embedded in them to transmit radio signals.
While Android manufacturers quietly allow users to enable the chip and unlock the FM radio tuner, Apple has not budged. Following the destruction wreaked on Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico by three separate hurricanes, the chair of the Federal Communications Commission voiced frustration at Apple for not cooperating.
“I applaud those companies that have done the right thing by activating the FM chips in their phones,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai in a statement. “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.”
Apple on Thursday responded with a blog post about its contributions to the disaster relief to all three hurricanes. It donated more than $13 million and quickly worked to turn Apple stores into spaces with free Wi-Fi and charging stations.
Apple did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the FM chip.
Apple does not ban FM radio outright. IPhone users can stream FM radio via Wi-Fi or cellular data through radio apps. But this method is costly for many with limited data — if they can get data in a disaster zone — and drains the battery faster.
“Listening to streaming drains your battery three to five times faster than listening to the exact same content on the FM chip,” said Jeff Smulyan, CEO of radio network company Emmis Communications, in a 2015 NPR interview.
Apple has faced recent pressure particularly from Florida, parts of which were devastated by Hurricane Irma earlier this month. Senator Bill Nelson, D-Florida, told local media and Bloomberg he was pushing Congress to require smartphone manufacturers to activate a hidden FM radio capability inside their products.
The Miami-based newspaper Sun-Sentinel wrote an editorial after Irma to lambast Apple and asked Apple and its competitors to allow FM access.
“Apple’s resistance is unacceptable. No company’s bottom line should stand in the way of Floridians receiving life-saving information,” wrote the Sun-Sentinel’s editorial board. “If Cuba can make manufacturers flip the switch, surely we can.”
In addition to Cuba, Mexico — which suffered two major earthquakes in the past month, killing more than 350 people — compels smartphone manufacturers to activate FM radio chips. Pai, the FCC chairman, told Bloomberg 80 percent of smartphones in Mexico have FM radio activated, compared to just 44 percent in the United States.
For Android owners with Samsung, LG or Motorola phones, FM radio can be tapped using the NextRadio app, created by the radio industry for disaster situations. Once NextRadio is turned on, all one needs is an earphone or a stereo cable to act as an antenna for the smartphone. The app lets you change the sound output to the phone speaker.
NextRadio saw huge spikes in usage during Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. In some Florida markets during Irma, listener and session counts increased by more than 1000 percent.
Critics believe Apple’s stubbornness stems from its desire not to to “cannibalize its streaming service by giving iPhone owners access to free radio service over the airwaves,” according to Bloomberg.
Despite the $13 million and Apple CEO Tim Cook’s public comments on helping those affected by the disasters, many who were caught in the storm felt it was not enough.
“Beyond prayers, Floridians need our iPhones to receive FM broadcasts,” wrote the Sun-Sentinel. “Do the right thing, Mr. Cook. Flip the switch. Lives depend on it.”
Photo: People sit on both sides of a destroyed bridge that crossed over the San Lorenzo de Morovis river, in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, in Morovis, Puerto Rico, Wednesday, Sept. 27, 2017. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
Tags: android, Apple, FM radio, Hurricane Harvey, Hurricane Irma, Hurricane Maria, iPhone