Soundbites before science

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

In the face of unprecedented natural disaster, politicians are once again calling on Apple and others to enable the FM radio feature in modern smartphones. Unfortunately, they aren't looking into the technology first.

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 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.

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