There's no 'FM radio' in your iPhone for Apple to magically turn on

In the wake of the devastation wrought by recent hurricanes and earthquakes, politicians in the U.S. are calling for Apple and other manufacturers to turn on the FM radios that they presume are lying dormant in iPhones and other phones. I really wish — and I suspect Apple and other manufacturers really wish — it was that as simple. But it's not. And, unfortunately, politicians aren't often well versed in technology, and they often don't ask before they soundbite.

Apple provided me with the following statement on the issue:

"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," Apple told iMore. "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."

Here's the reason for it, via Bloomberg:

Though the [iPhone] includes the FM chip, Apple Inc. has chosen not to activate the feature, a move critics say could be putting lives in danger.The issue has drawn fresh scrutiny following hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico, and parts of Texas and Florida. On Thursday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called on Apple to activate the chips in the name of public safety."I hope the company will reconsider its position, given the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria," Pai said in a statement. "That's why I am asking Apple to activate the FM chips that are in its iPhones. It is time for Apple to step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first."In Congress, Senator Bill Nelson of Florida is leading calls for mobile phone manufacturers to activate the FM radio chips embedded in nearly all smartphones. Those exhortations have been mainly directed at Apple, whose iPhone accounts for more than 40 percent of the U.S. smartphone market.

As stated by Apple, modern iPhones like iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 don't have FM radio capabilities on their chipsets and don't have a simple way to add antennas for FM radio signals. It's my understanding that what may look like commodity combo chips in teardowns are actually chips sourced specifically for Apple, matching Apple's exacting requirements. And, in this case, they don't include the elements and additional components needed for FM radio.

What about for older iPhones and other phones?

For older iPhones and other phones, even if it was possible to just "flip a switch" and enable FM on the chipset, significant additional roadblocks remain. Those chips may not be connected in a way that makes FM radio even possible. Assuming they were, changes would likely require an update to the wireless chipset firmware (Apple rolls its own, other manufacturers would need to request updates from Broadcom, Qualcomm, Intel, or whichever company manufactured the chip).

When that happened, FM radio functionality would then have to be rigorously tested to make sure it didn't interfere with the cellular, Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and NFC reception, and then baked into iOS and Android along with the interface elements and needed to actually use it.

Only then could it be pushed out as an update. There's no telling how many Android users would ever see such an update — carriers have traditionally pushed back against the feature since it bypasses their networks — and people in disaster areas who need FM radio aren't typically on the cellular or active Wi-Fi networks necessary to receive the update in the first place.

What's more, devices such as the Essential and upcoming Pixel 2, like iPhone 7 and iPhone 8, also lack an easy way to add an antenna. (Older hardware used a wired headphone connected to the 3.5mm headphone jack as a substitute antenna.)

Helping in ways that matter

Apple and the Apple community have already raised over $13 million for recovery efforts (opens in new tab) and the company is continuing to accept donations through the App Store and iTunes, and match employee contributions 2:1.

In the face of such abject destruction, everyone including Apple can and should be doing absolutely everything possible to help. Unfortunately, that simply doesn't include enabling FM radios on products that don't have them or couldn't be updated in a timely enough fashion to be meaningful.

The people affected need more than theatrics and smoke screens. Hopefully, all this attention and energy goes to efforts that really can help. And now.

Updated to include more information on how the chipsets and processes that would be needed to enable FM radio functionality.

Rene Ritchie
Contributor

Rene Ritchie is one of the most respected Apple analysts in the business, reaching a combined audience of over 40 million readers a month. His YouTube channel, Vector, has over 90 thousand subscribers and 14 million views and his podcasts, including Debug, have been downloaded over 20 million times. He also regularly co-hosts MacBreak Weekly for the TWiT network and co-hosted CES Live! and Talk Mobile. Based in Montreal, Rene is a former director of product marketing, web developer, and graphic designer. He's authored several books and appeared on numerous television and radio segments to discuss Apple and the technology industry. When not working, he likes to cook, grapple, and spend time with his friends and family.

34 Comments
  • Ajit Pai remarks are typical of US lawmakers and bureaucrats: Ready, Fire, Aim. Or in the case of our current Commander In Chief: FIRE.
  • Sadly, Pai's remarks are typical of lawmakers in a LOT of countries, mine included. Your Baboon In Chief is truly unique, I'll give you that.
  • Boo hoo, so self-centered Apple doesn't want to enable the FM capabilities from the Murata Broadcom chip (iPhone 6) and their other devices just because the LATEST iPhones can't have them? Heck even the Apple Watch has an FM chip, as well as the iPod Touch 6 gen. Models that still have headphone jacks can already use their included headphones as antennas. It would be comical if in their statement, they point out the real reason for the lack of antenna in their latest iPhones (No headphone jack!). If Apple has the opportunity to potentially save human lives, that should be motivation enough to enable them. A human life is invauable compared to the limitless amount of money they could spend on R&D to make this work; doubt it would take longer than a month or two for them to make it work well anyway.
    The fact that it might undermine Beats Radio, Apple Music, or save data/battery from using a Carrier's network shouldn't even be an issue if you can rely on this during an emergency. Especially when cell towers are knocked down. We don't need to take a vacation down to Puerto Rico to see the benefitis of this. I'm willing to accept an imperfect solution to this if Apple even tries to get it working with headphones as the antenna. ****, the latest Apple Watch series 3's cellular capabilities aren't perfect either but it's still useful.
  • Read the article. The older chips have FM radio capability baked in but it was never connected to anything that would allow actual FM radio reception or output on the iPhone.
  • There no FM antenna hooked to said chip. It wouldn’t work. And the FCC should know this, they have to approve of every single iteration of the iPhone. It’s stamped right on the back of the phone.
  • @rene @jbslough
    Did you even read my whole comment?
    Most phones and devices with the fm functionality enabled use a pair of headphones plugged into a headphone jack as the antenna. Or does that seem too magical to believe? There's a reason Apple didn't mention all the iPhones pre-iPhone 7 in their statement, they're dodging these assertions. There are around 700 million iPhones in the world today pre-iPhone 7, and it's impossible for the 7, 8, X models to eclipse those numbers alone so why would they only mention those models? Why would you be fooled so easily by their choice of wording. This is an issue of emergency, why would a multibillion dollar company also not try to experiment using the lightning port and cable as an antenna- It doesn't have to be the most consistent fm signals. The fm functionality is clearly practical and Apple is refusing the enable it.
  • don’t know if they’ve read your whole comment, but you clearly haven’t read the whole article. Even on the phones containing a chip with FM capability and a headphone jack for an antenna, FM cannot be turned on, because the chip is not physically connected or set up in a way that allows it to work, no matter what firmware/software/app update is provided. Criticise Apple for not enabling it when they manufactured the phone, but don’t criticise them for not turning on something that can’t be turned on. Also, the idea that Apple would refuse to enable FM because they’re worried it would hurt their bottom line is ludicrous. Do you really think they believe sketchy analogue radio can compete with Apple Music? The whole reason they started Beats 1 was because they thought current radio offerings weren’t up to the mark. You can debate whether they’ve succeeded (I don’t listen to Beats 1), but they believe in it. I certainly wouldn’t listen to FM radio on my phone if it’s anything like the terrible experience I used to get from my old Nokia. The “Apple doesn’t do X because it loses them money” trope is almost always wrong, and is just intellectually lazy. Apple does things because: it thinks the product area is important or interesting, it believes the current offerings are poor, and it thinks it can do much better. It doesn’t do things when one or more of the above aren’t true, or, sometimes just when it doesn’t like something. Remember, all the decision makers at Apple use Apple products whenever possible, and tend to trust their own judgment rather than customer feedback. If they don’t like FM in a phone they’re unlikely to ship it. (You can certainly criticise Apple for its somewhat arrogant/paternalistic approach to customers, and its institutional insularity, but it seems to be doing alright, all things considered) I suspect that if the case for emergency use of FM had been made to them at a time when they could have included it, they would have given it serious thought (at least the socially responsible Cook would have; I’m not so sure about Job...)
  • *Jobs* not Job...
  • If you read the statement provided by Apple themselves, they ONLY mentioned the newer phones. To me this is telling.
    If there was really no way at all, would they not have said, "There is no iPhone model released where it would only require a software update to enable FM radio functionality"?
  • The antenna connection on the chip has to be connected to the headphone jack connectors with the right filters to allow it to work. You can't just plug a headphone, or a plug with a wire in and have it work. If you weren't intending to support the FM feature, even if it existed, you wouldn't do the extra work to support it. Technically you could even do this with the lightning connector IF, you intended to support FM. The reality is 'who the **** listens to FM anymore'? I do, but if you survey most cellphone buyers, Spotify, Apple Music, Google Plat, etc, is what they care about. Even MS, whose Lumias still support FM quit upgrading and supplying their FM app. Nobody cared, and it cost money to support it. Everyone should go out and find a cheap Windows Phone. The FM works fine even if you have no SIM at all. So does the GPS and Nav, Camera, SD card for music and video. For $35-$70 you can get a basic iPod Touch...with FM.
  • I think it's a fair question. Plenty of Android phones have it, and the function used to be available on chips on iPhones, even if Apple chose not to implement it. Been a Mac geek for years, but when I eventually gave up on Android phones and bought an iPhone it was the first thing I really missed. It would cost them next to nothing to add it back in and implement it on future phones. Putting back the headphone jack to accommodate an FM antenna would also win them plenty of praise. Imagine that, Apple! Adding, not removing, a feature people actually want! And if you could blame the 0.03c cost increase per unit it on regulators forcing you to help save lives, so much the better!
  • Think of it this way if it helps: just because you have a garage doesn't mean you have a way to drive across town. You'd still have to get a car, drivers license, route, etc.
  • Putting back the headphone jack might “win them plenty of praise”, but not, I suspect, from the tech journalism sector, who were the ones who excoriated them about its removal at the time, but have uttered hardly a cheep about the removal of the headphone jack in numerous phones since. Coincidence? The headphone jack is a genuinely useful port for many (but fewer and fewer) people - my own son even bought a 6s rather than a 7 recently, largely on the basis it had one (and was lots cheaper...), but I have a pair of AirPods, and will never look back on the wired headphone days (except to wince about the number of times I caught the wires on something and yanked them out of my ears; the cumulative hours I spent untangling them; the cleaning lint out of the port after several days of the headphones not working) Wireless headphones are a genuinely useful alternative for (increasingly) many people, and when they are the norm, minds will be boggled at the idea that in the Stone Age people had to be physically connected to their phones. Apple always has (and hopefully always will) skate(d) to where the puck is going to be. This will always cause a painful transition for some, even many, people, but their aggressive adoption of new technologies means that the transition will be shorter and less painful than if they didn’t. I would be prepared to put a few quid (cf bucks) that if we look back in ten years at the tipping point for wireless headphone adoption (let’s remember they’ve been around for years and years) will be 2016. Coincidence?
  • Rene, good column as always! Your title is off, however. "There's no 'FM radio' in your iPhone for Apple to magically turn on" As you and Apple noted, that's only true for iPhone 7 & 8. That means, as Carl Sagan might have said, that there are *billions and billions* of iPhone made from 2007-2016 that do have FM radios that could be turned on! They should just do it! ------------- P.S. Now, you're right that it's more than just a switch being turned on -- there would have to be "an app for that"! LOL! However, we're all speculating as to what else would be involved. You should check and see whether it would require a wireless chipset firmware upgrade -- maybe it wouldn't! And, as to your concern that it might interfere with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth or cellular-- the problem in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, is that those other services were and are down-- so, any interference isn't a problem! A side note. The people in Puerto Rico are U.S. citizens; that's just a reminder to many who forget or don't know -- it's not relevant to the issue of aid or turning on FM radios -- we should provide massive aid no matter where these disasters happen and Apple has a responsibility no matter which people are involved! -------- P.P.S. I had Ad Block on and my comment wouldn't post. The iMore error message that came up, however, focused solely on badly formed text, or SQL, or malformed data -- it did not mention anything about Ad Blockers! Note: I also just got a message that I don't have enough reputation so that I must wait 48 more seconds before "posting another comment" -- except that I wasn't posting a new comment! I was editing (permitted) and adding this post-postscript!
  • We're not all speculating. I go over it in fairly well-informed detail in the article. :)
    And, as to your concern that it might interfere with Wi-Fi or Bluetooth or cellular-- the problem in the Caribbean, including Puerto Rico, is that those other services were and are down-- so, any interference isn't a problem!
    If those services are down, no update could be delivered. If they're not down, taking them down to deliver an update would be an attack verging on the inhuman. Totally don't mean to pick on you, but the situation is so dire I think it's important not to let false assumptions or lack of technologically sound speculation propagate.
  • Very True. +1
  • There no antenna. You’d have to open the phone up to hook one up.
  • Yea, people need to understand that those devices that do use the headphone wires for an antenna, do so because they were designed to. The headphone jack is connected to the chip antenna ports via filters to direct RF to the chip and keep high energy audio out of it. It doesn't just happen, it had to be designed that way, at expense.
  • Politicians are generally stupid. If they had any brains or talent, they would have real jobs. It clearly does not occur to politicians that many/most/all people in hurricane prone areas already have battery powered radios. Radios that will play for weeks without needing new batteries. Or even hand crank radios. An iPhone lasts about a day before it needs charged. Maybe 2 at best. It would be basically useless after a hurricane, with long term power outages. Did I mention how effing stupid politicians are?
  • People wouldn't need to have the radio on all day. just a few minutes every hour or so. Seriously. But it's a moot point given there's no FM radio in iPhones.
  • Maybe in light of the recent devastation Apple should consider putting the FM transmitter back in and figuring out a way to make it work?
  • Or maybe not? Throughout the iPhone's lifespan there have been plenty of disasters and this has never been an issue before. Plus refer to krislord's comment below
  • Went through hurricane Matthew in SC. The only service I had was AT&T and Spectrum. No electricity. Local radio stations were down. Weirdly, using a generator I was able to still get on the Internet.
  • FM Receiver, not transmitter.
  • As Gruber pointed out, the FCC Chairman could have looked into the FCC filings by Apple for their devices. But, this is all about diverting attention from the way the FCC handled the hurricanes.
  • I was wondering how the chairman missed that. Couldn’t one of his advisors tell him that the phones don’t work that way? I mean after all they have to approve them.
  • People should just buy a radio. People are told to have a torch, no one says rely on your $700 smart phone for light in an emergency.
  • All this is a smoke screen. Trump and a-hole Pai are creating a hate Apple movement. Don't
    be surprised if the powdered donut in chief soon starts a twitter war with Apple as a way to discredit the corporation that dares not bow down before the cheat king. Oh, BTW- Russia. Just in case you forgot.
  • First off, Trump is the President of the USA and deserves respect. As for a twitter war, he should start one since Apple is lying, or at least skirting the truth! The phones 6 and before have the FM chip! All you need to do is to look at their patents and clearly see that yes, it is as easy as pushing an update to the phones to turn it on and throw a few apps out there to tune to 88-108 for FM and 800-1600 for am. The antenna that is in them is more than adequate for AM reception and in most cases you will get a few FM stations as well using same antenna. As for interference, that's a joke. These are not transmitters we are talking about and no chip that already is FM enabled is going to cause interference since their wouldn't have put it in the chip to begin with if it would cause it! Apple is just thinking of a way to monetize it as they were caught off guard by someone in GOV with a brain that actually paid attention to what's inside the apple iPhone! Apple was taken by surprise! Who cares if the 7 and 8 don't have it. How many people do you think are running around in any other country other than the USA with brand new 7's or 8's ? Just because they are common here doesn't mean they are there! In fact, they sell more used 6's there than all the 7's and 8's combined! No one has 700-800 to plop down on a phone with a family to feed and these countries are more into family than most of the world as that's how the Hispanic populous is! It's all about family, not toys like the latest iphones! We sell a ton of 5's and 6's to these people. Hundreds a year in fact and we are considered small in the way of cellular! So yes, they could turn it on if they wanted to and they could do it in less than a week complete!!! The time it took for this thread to get to this point would have been more than enough time to have it up and running. Shame on Apple for their antics. Money or not, the point is, if they could make a few hundred million by flipping that switch, they would and wouldn't look back for certain! And every iPhone from that time on would be fully equipped! It's all about the money for apple! The phones have 64 dollars in parts in them. They have more in advertising than they do in costs to make these phones! The apps are written by 3rd parties so that's more money like "FM Radio app" which they would monetize! They just haven't added a 50 dollar extra price tag to flip the switch and make a few hundred million dollars more but I'll tell you one thing....You wait and see when they do it, and they will, they will advertise the **** out of it and the price will be higher and the fat get fatter and the poor get poorer! This has nothing to do with Trump. He is going to be your president in 2020 so get used to it or move out of the country. I am getting sick of you slobs taking shots at the guy. The majority of the USA wanted him there, me included, and he is doing good work. Just because you aren't getting your welfare check in time doesn't mean you can start on a forum about apple and drag your political crap into it. He didn't cheat to get in as president, he went against a murdering ***** named Clinton of which will NEVER be president and is done in the public sector! You want cheating and scandal, go look to her and murder as well. Benghazi, no one had to die unless you have a Clinton in a position to let it happen! How that's for politics? You like fruit? How about them apples!!!!
  • The FM radios in older IPhones are like the vestigial organs in the human body. The coccyx, or tailbone, exists to allow humans to wag their tails. But, humans having no tails for the coccyx to connect with, the coccyx can’t be “turned on” and made to work. Ditto for the vestigial radios in older iPhones. The bits they could connect to are missing. The newer phones don’t even have the vestige. So much for just “flipping a switch”. What a stupid issue for government to raise. Deserves a kick in the coccyx.
  • +1
  • There’s an FM radio in my truck, car, RV, alarm clocks, portable cassette stereo (remember those?), and portable radio. That’s eight radios I’d have access if an emergency situation occurred. An FM radio in my phone is of little benefit in the most problematic of emergencies: those that happen quickly, or when I am away from my usual haunts. Various warning systems connected to the cell network are far more useful. If I recall, just now PR has no operating FM stations, as the infrastructure was downed by the hurricane, so the whole point becomes moot! The other thing to remember is human behaviour in disaster situations; we tend to gather to offer support, and share knowledge.
  • If one can’t trust a BS artist with zero credibility, specially when they’re posturing, who can you trust?
  • Can't Apple do an update on older iPhones that actually have the FM radio so that it could use the headphone jack as the antenna?