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Trump’s FCC Commissioner Calls on Apple to ‘Activate’ iPhone FM Antennas That No Longer Exist

FCC statement (PDF):

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai released the following statement today calling on Apple to activate the FM chips that are in iPhones to promote public safety: In recent years, I have repeatedly called on the wireless industry to activate the FM chips that are already installed in almost all smartphones sold in the United States. And I’ve specifically pointed out the public safety benefits of doing so. In fact, in my first public speech after I became Chairman, I observed that ‘you could make a case for activating chips on public safety groundsalone.’ When wireless networks go down during a natural disaster, smartphones with activated FM chips can allow Americans to get vital access to life-saving information. I applaud those companies that have done the right thing by activating the FM chips in their phones.

Apple is the one major phone manufacturer that has resisted doing so. But I hope the company will reconsider its position, given the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria. 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. As the Sun Sentinel of South Florida put it, ‘Do the right thing, Mr. Cook. Flip the switch. Lives depend on it.’”

The Sun Sentinal comment comes from this well-intentioned but deeply misinformed editorial:

When Hurricane Irma wiped out power and cell phone service, a hidden feature in our smartphones could have helped Floridians stay informed. […]

Smartphones contain an inner switch that lets them receive over-the-air analog signals from local radio stations. In other countries, including Cuba, manufacturers are required to flip the switch on. But in this country, Apple rules. And it prefers to sell the iPhone with the FM radio button switched off.

The idea being that Apple (and other companies) refuse to “flip the switch” because FM radio is free so they want everyone to use streaming services that cost money.

But there is no such switch. In a statement to MacRumors, an Apple spokesperson said the following:

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. 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.

That’s unequivocal, but leaves open the question about older iPhones. I’ve dug around, and what I’ve been told is that there is an FM radio chip in older iPhones, but it’s not connected, and there’s no antenna designed for FM radio. The chip is just part of a commodity component part, and Apple only connected the parts of the chip that the iPhones were designed to use. No iPhone was ever designed to be an FM radio, and there is no “switch” that can be “flipped” — nor software update that could be issued — that could turn them into one. It’s a complete technical misconception.

What’s absurd is that the FCC commissioner would take his understanding of the iPhone’s technical capabilities from a newspaper editorial rather than from Apple’s own FCC regulatory filings, which I’m pretty sure would show that they’re not capable of acting as FM radios.

Furthermore, I’m sure the timing of Pai’s “go blame Apple” letter has nothing to do with yesterday’s vociferous criticism of the FCC’s handling of the aftermaths of hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria.

Thursday, 28 September 2017