US representatives seek FCC hearing on FM chips in cell phones


A group of 16 Congressional Black Caucus members have fired off a letter to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski suggesting that having an active FM reception chip in mobile phones would save lives and requested a hearing on the topic. They said that radio is both a popular, widely used medium and that “…since the 1950s, broadcasters have been the backbone of the public warning system and remain so today.” Wireless interests objected, musical interest piggy-backed a marginally-related topic and NAB agreed CBC made perfect sense and indicated its support for a market-based solution to the issue.

From a radio standpoint, it would be hard to imagine a top flight public relations firm doing a better job of talking up the medium than did the US Reps. “More than 241 million Americans depend on local radio to provide community news and information,” they wrote. “About 94 percent of African-American consumers aged 12 years and over listen to radio each week at home, at work, in the car and in other locations. Regardless of age, time of day or location, radio is a valuable media companion to African Americans.”

Then came the “backbone” remarks, followed by the curious fact that for some reason FM chips are far less available in the US than in other nations.

“Having widely available mobile devices that are broadcast ready is a critical component of any next-generation wireless alerting solution. Radio-enabled mobile phones would save lives, including the approximately 87 percent of African Americans who ow a cell phone and consider it a vital part of their lives.”
They asked for a hearing.

Signing on to the letter were Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY), Charles Rangel (D-NY), Bennie Thompson (D-MS), Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO), Donna Christensen (D-VI), G.K. Butterfield (D-NC), Andre Carson (D-IN), Sanford Bishop (D-GA), Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-DC), Barbara Lee (D-CA), Maxine Waters (D-CA), Frederica Wilson (D-FL), Hansen Clarke (D-MI), Cedric Richmond (D-LA), Laura Richardson (D-CA) and Terri Sewell (D-AL).

The objection came from Consumer Electronics Association, CTIA — The Wireless Association, and the MusicFIRST Coalition (which includes the Recording Industry Association of America, American Federation of Musicians, the Recording Academy, and SoundExchange) – they fired off a letter to members of the Congressional Black Caucus urging them to avoid signing the letter.

On the music side, they warmed up the performance royalty debate and served it up as leftovers, even though it has little to do with the public safety motive for putting an FM chip in a mobile device. They suggested that big radio was trying to “bootstrap” its way onto phones via a special interest loophole, killing off other innovative services being offered on the devices.

The devices manufacturers themselves do not want the government telling them “…which features to include on their phones. If consumers wanted to listen to FM Radio on their smartphones, manufacturers would include the necessary hardware – just like any other feature.  A number of companies do offer FM radio as a built-in feature; many do not. That’s simply a sign that the market is working: consumers have choices and are voting with their pocketbooks.” They objected to attempts to make their inclusoion mandatory.

NAB EVP Dennis Wharton took issue with the depiction of the NAB position. “It is disappointing that CEA, CTIA and musicFirst are falsely claiming that NAB is seeking a mandated radio chip in cellphones. We have said repeatedly to these organizations that NAB supports a market solution to this issue, and even CTIA admits as much in the attached fact sheet. By distorting our position, CEA, CTIA and musicFirst are doing a disservice to policymakers who deserve open and honest information.

Wharton added, “From a public safety perspective alone, voluntary introduction of radio chips in cellphones makes perfect sense. It would be our hope that when it comes to saving lives in times of emergency, our friends at CEA, CTIA and musicFirst would move beyond intimidation tactics and special interest politics and encourage a substantive debate on the merits of this issue.”

RBR-TVBR observation: The crux of the issue here is the one-to-many broadcast distribution model v. the one-to-one model used by wireless mobile. When the chips are down, the FM chip will allow those with cell phones to receive continuous and detailed emergency information from broadcasters. As we saw during the earthquake strike that belted Washington DC last summer, thousand upon thousand of citizens using phones without FM chips simply crashed the system, rendering the phones useless. That is why the chips are important and should be a public policy imperative.