American broadcasters turn up the volume on misguided campaign to enable FM tuners in smartphones

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Millions of consumers have switched off their radios in favor of music and commentary streamed over the internet, a trend that many in the terrestrial broadcast industry allege has been bolstered by device makers and wireless carriers who have conspired to disable built-in radio receivers in a bid to sell more expensive data packages.

Most smartphones —  and indeed other connected devices, like tablets —  ship with one of a handful of universal wireless communications chips inside, usually made by companies like Broadcom or Murata. They combine multi-band Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios in a single package, reducing size and increasing efficiency.

In many cases, these chips also pack a third over-the-air option: an FM tuner.

While many low-end devices take advantage of this to tick yet another feature checkbox, flagship smartphones rarely enable it. Apple's iPhone has never shipped with the ability to natively receive FM broadcasts despite having a built-in tuner, and Samsung largely dropped it from the Galaxy lineup after the Galaxy S3. HTC's One M9 does come with the feature, as do some Windows Phone models.

This has led terrestrial broadcasters to band together in an attempt to convince carriers and manufacturers to enable the dormant chips.

According to Free Radio On My Phone, a group that includes NPR and the National Association of Broadcasters, "all listeners would have easy access to radio for the entertainment they love and information they need, but wireless carriers are dragging their feet and won't activate the FM chips that are in every smartphone."

Broadcasters argue that consumers would benefit by having the option to listen to music without using up their data allowance, or being able to receive emergency broadcasts over the air.

It's true that some manufacturers have disabled the FM tuners only for specific carriers, though it's unclear which side of the fence made that call. What's not true, though, is that carriers could simply enable the feature with a simple software update.

In phones where FM reception was not included in the design —  like Apple's iPhone lineup —  the tuner is often physically disconnected, and there's no FM antenna to be found. Most phones that do include FM capabilities use the headphone cords as antennas, which would require even more hardware changes.

Even if broadcasters do win out and convince manufacturers to begin making FM reception a priority, it may be too little too late as FM radio has begun to lose ground to digital audio broadcasting around the world.

Last Friday, just before the FM lobby's latest push in America, Norwegian regulators announced that in January 2017 the country would be the first in the world to turn off its FM stations in favor of DAB.

 

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