The world’s largest smartphone producer released news recently all new phones released in the US and Canada will have FM chips built-in – although nearly all of Samsung’s phones in other parts of the world already have FM. Why would a tech giant like Samsung want to include 85-year-old technology in their phones? Emergencies. Last year’s hurricanes battered the United States and numerous islands in the Caribbean and prompted calls for inclusion of FM technology in smartphones. Most of the cell towers were still not functioning months after the storms left Puerto Rico. Many aid and delivery services instead used FM radio stations to broadcast instructions around the island and workers had ready access to FM radios in their vehicles.
Because of this, advocacy groups are pushing politicians and governments around the world to mandate phone manufacturers and carriers to enable FM functionality – the advantage is local governments and federal agencies could more easily notify citizens of emergencies. Many households no longer have an FM radio – having the capability in one or more smartphones in a household allows emergency notifications to be received without having to rely on people going out to their cars. So far, Mexico is the only country to have mandated FM chips in smartphones, and many other countries are considering similar proposals.
Apparently, Qualcomm LTE modems (which are in the vast majority of the world’s smartphones) have had FM radio functionality built-in for years. However, many cellular carriers have not included the firmware needed to enable the chip for various (and largely unknown) reasons, but it is likely related to the revenue generated through selling the extra bandwidth needed to stream data. Carriers also have not provided an easy way to access the chip, even if it is enabled. The leading presumption for Qualcomm’s inclusion of FM receivers is due to FM technology’s prevalence and need in developing countries – easier to turn it off for other markets around the world than it is to design a whole new chip. But as unlimited data plans become the norm, carriers are starting to relax their view of FM in smartphones and more are enabling its functionality more widely.
As it stands, some phone model and carrier combos work with NextRadio, an app specially designed to access the FM radio chip. This configuration needs just one other item to work – an antenna – which is coincidentally formed as soon as the user plugs in a pair of wired headphones. The app also allows the user to set the radio to use the phone’s speaker, but the headphones are still needed as an antenna. Wireless earbud users – you might be out of luck, at least for now. That antenna is pretty important.
FM has a number of benefits over streaming media. Significantly less data transfer means longer battery life – streaming audio requires an Internet connection which uses up much more energy. Some estimates show streaming takes up 3 times the amount of battery power. Radio is also compression-free, meaning better clarity. And radio waves travel much farther than cellular data signals, translating to a cheaper distribution method.
Further, major streaming apps like iHeartRadio only stream a small subset of the world’s radio stations, so your favorite local station might not be available any other way. Plus, if you have ever tried to stream the play-by-play of the game you are at, you know that cellular data lines are usually over-subscribed at major sports venues. Good luck sending an email, let alone streaming audio of the game. FM radio solves the problem of mass distribution of media in a crowded area, relieving data constraints on the cellular towers near those venues.
What about the number two world producer of phones? Some Apple phones, especially older models, have a chipset that includes FM functionality, but Apple’s circuitry engineers never connected that part of the chipset to an antenna, or anything that could be used as an antenna (like wired headphones). So, for Apple users at least, it is not simply a software upgrade. Apple apparently has been characteristically quiet about the issue.
In any case, it is very likely your next smartphone will include FM capability out of the box – and it might be turned on and ready to go at purchase time. With Samsung’s new announcement it is quite possible major carriers around the world will start using “FM included” as a marketing campaign for a technology that has been in there all along.