Why Can’t I Listen to Radio If My Phone Has an FM Receiver In It?

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai just publicly called on Apple to activate the FM receiver chips found in iPhones for public safety reasons. Many Android phones also contain dormant FM chips. But, if your phone has an FM receiver, why can’t you already listen to the radio on it?

There’s one quick issue with Ajit Pai’s request: As Apple noted, the iPhone 7, iPhone 8, and iPhone X don’t even have an FM chip. But the iPhone 6s and older iPhones do. So why haven’t we been able to listen to the radio on these phones? Could Apple just enable radio functionality with a software update?

Why Is That FM Chip Even There?

Most people probably aren’t aware that older iPhones (and many Android phones) even have FM radio receiver chips in the first place. After all, no iPhone has ever been able to function as an FM radio, although some Android phones have.

So why did Apple choose to add that FM radio hardware in the first place, if Apple doesn’t plan on actually using it? The answer is that Apple didn’t choose to add the FM radio hardware—not really.

Despite Apple’s marketing, which would lead you to believe each part inside the iPhone was designed and manufactured by Apple itself, they aren’t. On an iPhone 6s, the LTE modem for connecting to the cellular network was created by Qualcomm. You can see this if you look at teardowns done by websites like iFixit, which rip apart devices and identify their various components.

Specifically, Apple chose to use the Qualcomm MDM9635M LTE modem for the iPhone 6s. This Qualcomm part comes with FM radio receiving functionality included, as many other Qualcomm modems do. It’s just easier for Qualcomm to include all these features in its hardware and allow device manufacturers to disable them as needed.

Apple didn’t ask for this FM radio receiver hardware and had no plans to use it, so Apple just disables and ignores it. The FM radio receiver may be more commonly activated in developing countries where the ability to listen to radio on a smartphone is in higher demand. You can find it on some Android smartphones in the US, too. But the manufacturer has to choose to enable it.

Why Apple Can’t Enable It Just By “Flipping a Switch”

Apple can’t simply roll out a quick software update that enables the FM radio functionality on the iPhone 6s and older iPhones. We don’t know all the limitations, as Apple is just pointing out that the iPhone 7, iPhone 8, and iPhone X can’t support this in hardware. But, even on an iPhone 6s, Apple would have the following issues to deal with:

The FM chip may not be physically connected in a way that even makes it possible to enable. Only Apple actually knows whether this is true and how difficult it would be to connect.

The underlying chipset firmware would need to be updated.

The FM radio functionality would need testing to ensure it didn’t cause any problems with the iPhone’s cellular, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth reception.

Apple would have to add a Radio app to iOS so users could use the radio.

Enabling the FM radio, even if it were physically possible—and we don’t know if it is—would be a major project for Apple.

But Why Wasn’t It Hooked Up In The First Place?

So iPhones and various Android phones have FM radio hardware just because it’s a standard part of the modem, and they can’t easily enable it after the hardware was released. But that leads to the question: Why wasn’t it enabled in the first place?

This leads us into the realm of speculation, of course. But it’s clear that there are economic incentives for not enabling the FM radio. For Apple, the lack of FM radio functionality pushes iPhone users towards services like Apple Music, Beats 1 Radio, and iTunes. For cellular carriers, the omission of FM radio encourages customers to stream music via the cellular network and use more costly data.

Or, perhaps Apple just didn’t want to put the man-hours into supporting the hardware and software. Let’s be honest: Consumers in the USA haven’t exactly demanded FM radio functionality in their phones. It’s still possible to purchase phones with this feature, and it’s especially common in cheaper Android phones. Samsung’s new Galaxy S8 phones still include an FM radio receiver, but Samsung didn’t even bundle an app that lets you use it. If you download an FM radio receiver app from Google Play, you can listen to FM radio on the latest Galaxy phone. But this isn’t a feature even Samsung thinks is worth mentioning. If this feature was in high demand, it might be more common.

Should FM Chips Be Required and Enabled?                                  

The big argument for enabling FM radio functionality is public safety. FM radio receiving functionality would allow people to receive emergency broadcasts in the case of natural disasters like Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria, even when the cellular network goes down.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents radio and television broadcasters, has asked manufacturers to enable the radio functionality on their phones. Congress has held hearings on this in the past, too. But former FCC commissioner Tom Wheeler decided not to require smartphone manufacturers to include this feature, a decision even current FCC commissioner Ajit Pai agrees with.

Ultimately, people don’t seem to care much about this feature. Consumers are voting with their dollars. If the FCC commissioner and government want manufacturers to enable FM radio functionality on their phones, they’ll probably have to introduce a law or regulation requiring it.

Of course, it’s also possible that a massive change in public sentiment will lead customers to demand FM radio functionality, which is what the FCC commissioner seems to be hoping for. That just doesn’t seem very likely at the moment.

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