How Authorities Could Really Help Canadians

iphone 6 150pixAt the OAB Conference in Toronto last week (30 October, 2014) there was a session held to discuss the new emergency alert system system the C.R.T.C. will require all radio and TV stations in Ontario to have in place before 31 March, 2015. Stations will be required to broadcast emergency alert messages issued by public officials such as emergency management officials for immediate distribution to the public to warn of dangers to life and property. These messages contain information relating to the nature of the threat, the area affected, and actions the public should take. This system is already running in Alberta and New Brunswick, so it makes sense to expand it to the most populated province in Canada. But I think the Government and the appropriate authorities need to go a step further and regulate that the FM chips in cell phones be turned on to make this even easier for Canadians to listen to radio and hear these emergency messages.

There is a single chip already built into  almost every smart phone sold in Canada in the past 3 to 5 years, but in most cases the chip is not activated. Only Blackberry has turned it on in some of their phones. This FM chip is a standard feature on most cell phones in Europe and Asia. In India, for example, more radio is consumed on a cell phone than any other device. If there was a major natural disaster, the phone lines and power would be the first to go, this is exactly what happened when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in August of 2006. That Hurricane knocked out power, telephones, cell phones, police communications, all the TV stations, and most radio stations as well. But there was one station that survived which was WWL broadcasting at 870 on the AM Band.

Even when cellular or Wi-Fi networks remain functional, usage spikes and overloaded networks become useless. If people had the ability to listen to radio on their cell phones via the FM chip they would be able to hear the emergency information that radio stations would be quick to broadcast.

In a disaster, when the internet goes down, NAAD will not work. Sadly the apps that many radio stations have developed which relies on the signal being carried over the internet will not work either.

But the FM chip in the cell phone will work. This is a public safety issue and we need the regulators and the cell phone companies to get on board and make the FM chip mandatory in Canada. This issue may be gaining some traction in the USA and recently Hiawathra Bray from the Boston Globe wrote an interesting article called “Is your smartphone ready for your radio?”

Remember transistor radios? The kind that fit into a shirt pocket and ran on a 9-volt battery? No, they’re not obsolete. You may have used one of them today, to make a phone call.

Most smartphones made today have plain old FM radios built inside, the kind that can tune in music stations, local news bulletins, and Patriots games. However, many smartphone users don’t use them, and millions more can’t, because the radio is often disabled. Apple’s iPhones, for example, have their FM receivers turned off.

With such a large audience out of reach, several stalwarts of the industry — the National Association of Broadcasters, National Public Radio, and American Public Media — have launched a lobbying campaign to get those radios switched on. They’ve also come up with an app, NextRadio, that arranges all your local FM stations in a handy menu, displays what’s playing on each, and let’s you tune to one with a simple tap of the screen. You can even use it to buy that new song you can’t get out of your head.

However, the app only works on FM-capable phones running Google Inc.’s Android operating system.

How did an FM radio get into your smartphone? Phone makers found that adding the feature costs almost nothing. Outside the United States, customers love it, especially in developing countries where FM is a zero-cost alternative to streaming digital music. FM radio is also an excellent way to get news updates during disasters, when cell systems are often overloaded. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has recommended FM-capable smartphones for keeping informed during a crisis.

But with most smartphones in the United States, the FM feature is switched off, with one major exception — Sprint Corp., which did a deal in 2013 with Emmis Communications, the radio and publishing conglomerate that makes NextRadio. You can listen to FM on about two dozen Sprint Android phones from HTC, LG, and Samsung. In exchange, Sprint gets a cut of the revenue generated by ads that appear in the NextRadio app.

But the other three majors — AT&T, Verizon Wireless, and T-Mobile — only offer a few phone models with working FM radios. For instance, the latest HTC One phones offer FM, no matter which carrier you use. Conversely, the FM radio on a Samsung Galaxy S5 works for customers of Sprint, but not for those of the other carriers.

The FM chips in Apple Inc.’s iPhones don’t work, not even the ones sold by Sprint. I asked Apple why not, but got no reply. I also asked AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon why they don’t activate the FM radios. None would tell me. The cellular industry trade association, CTIA, was just as unhelpful.

One guess: People with FM radios will stream less digital music and download fewer songs, perhaps eroding cell company revenues.

But San Diego radio consultant Mark Ramsey isn’t buying that explanation,on the grounds that listeners aren’t really “saving” anything by using their phone radios.

He estimates you’d have to stream music for four hours a day, every day, to burn through the typical monthly data quota. Besides, most American music streamers usually fall back on their home or office Wi-Fi service, rather than their cell data plans.

Instead, Ramsey thinks traditional radio companies are pushing NextRadio in a desperate bid to stay relevant in the cellular age.

Well, maybe. But as desperate bids go, it’s not bad. Even though I’m an AT&T subscriber, I was able to use NextRadio because I own an HTC One phone, with a working FM chip inside. As with all FM-capable phones, you need to plug in a headphone; its wire acts as the radio’s antenna. There is also an option for playing songs through the phone’s speakers instead.

My phone already had a primitive FM radio app that let me flip through local frequencies and lock in some preset favorites. The app also displays song titles on the phone’s screen.

NextRadio offers quite a bit more.

It uses the phone’s data network to download album cover photos and titles. These appear on icons representing all local stations. At a glance, you can see which songs are playing all along the FM dial. Just tap an icon to tune in.

Because it’s FM radio, the music starts instantly, without the brief delay you get with digital streams. And if you’d like to purchase a recording, tap the screen and you’re taken to the Google Play online store, which offers millions of tunes for sale, usually priced at $1.29 per song.

NextRadio is FM radio made smarter, but can it compete with the Internet’s deep and diverse audio streams? Probably not. But until AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon end their irrational FM lockdown, most of us will never get to choose. Link to the story here