FCC Chief Urges Hold-Out Apple to Enable Radio Chips in iPhones to Save Lives

Most phones are made with FM chips that would allow them to tune into radio frequencies without anything other than power — if the chips are activated, and users have an app downloaded that can access broadcasts

The iPhone is an incredibly advanced device, but some versions have a very old piece of technology embedded in it lying dormant: a radio receiver.

Now, the chairman of the U.S. agency that regulates radio, phones and other forms of communication wants Apple to activate the FM chips in iPhones to help get information to Puerto Ricans, whose island is near-totally blacked-out after Hurricane Maria hit land with devastating force last week.

"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," said Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai Thursday in a statement. "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."

Pai's call was backed by the National Association of Broadcasters, which also urged Apple to "light up the FM chip."

"It is time for Apple to step up to the plate and put the safety of the American people first," Pai said in his statement.

Puerto Rico is in the midst of what San Juan's mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, House Speaker Paul Ryan and others have called a humanitarian crisis. Nearly half the island is without water and about all electricity customers without power as of Wednesday, according to federal agencies' most recent updates.

About nine in 10 cellphone sites were still out of service by Wednesday, and residents have complained that there's no way for them to get vital news about where to get supplies. Many people continue to be unable simply to reach family members on the mainland.

Usually, smartphones get data through the internet, but with so much of the island crippled, internet service is very hard to come by. But the FM chips that most phones are made with would allow them to tune into radio frequencies without anything other than power — if the chips are activated, and users have an app downloaded that can access broadcasts.

Pai has long identified this capability as being important option for smartphone owners to have when disasters hit, and the FCC has recognized that it's particularly useful in disaster situations when the internet is hard to access.

"I don't think people realize how vulnerable people get," said former FEMA Administator Craig Fugate, citing cell system overload during Hurricane Sandy and the Virginia earthquake, in an interview with NAB. 

FEMA urges people to have battery-powered radios in their disaster preparedness kits, but Fugate said in the 2014 interview, "If your radio's now in your cellphone, that's one less device that you have to have extra."

Currently, the NAB-supported NextRadio app, which can broadcast from the FM chip, is available on a wide variety of Samsung, HTC, Moto and other smartphones. But not iPhones.

Apple did not respond when Wired wrote about the issue of smartphones' FM chips last year. In a statement to NBC on Thursday, an Apple spokesperson said that its iPhone 7 and new iPhone 8 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."

"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," Apple said in a statement. "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."

Apple did not address the older models of iPhones, and the FCC declined to comment on the company's statement.

Activating the FM chip wouldn't immediately help anyone in Puerto Rico without internet already. But advocates argue it would help Americans be prepared for the next disaster.

Wireless companies have long urged Congress to let FM chip activation be up to individual carriers.

Asked at a 2013 congressional hearing why cellphone providers are reluctant to activatation of the chips, then-executive vice-president of the wireless association CTIA, Christopher Guttman-McCabe, said, "we leave it up to that ecosystem, and the carriers will compete against each other as well as the handset manufacturers."

In a recent statement, CTIA spokesman Nick Ludlum touted wireless providers' quick response to the three recent hurricanes that hit the United States, including by bringing in portable generators and cell equipment.

NBC reached out to the CTIA for a response to Pai's statement.

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