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Public-Safety News: AT&T to Activate FM Radio in Smartphones in 2016

AT&T will ask Smartphone manufacturers to activate FM chips on its Android devices in 2016. AT&T joins Sprint as the two major wireless carriers allowing consumers to receive over-the-air broadcasts from local radio stations on their mobile devices.

House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) expressed support for AT&T’s decision at a committee hearing the morning AT&T announced it. "We hope other carriers will follow suit," he said.

Radio broadcasters have been urging American wireless carriers to voluntarily activate the FM chips already installed in mobile devices, as they are in much of the rest of the world. Activated FM chips allow consumers to tune into their local radio broadcasters without needing to stream the signal and dip into their data plans.

Radio-enabled mobile devices play a valuable public-safety role for consumers, as wireless networks and Internet-based cellphone services may crash or be otherwise inaccessible during an emergency. Local radio stations serve as communities’ first informers, working closely with emergency response personnel and public-safety officials to provide live, up-to-the-second information when disaster strikes.

FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate expressed his support for activated FM chips (YouTube) because of their public-safety potential.

"And so you now start seeing technology moving in the Smartphones where you can have radio chips in there,” Fugate said. “This would be again another way to ensure, when all else fails, you can still get from the broadcasters information. Because government is going to turn to the broadcaster and we're going to pump information, either through the Emergency Alert System or through just broadcasters getting out press conferences.”

Members of Congress have also weighed in on the need for radio-enabled mobile devices for their public-safety benefit. Homeland Security Committee Ranking Member Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.) and Transportation Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) recently sent a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler encouraging him to work with wireless carriers in activating FM chips.

“We urge you to take every possible action to ensure that the public has every tool in the public alerts and warnings toolbox at its disposal, including access to FM radio through the activation of FM chips already built-into almost all smartphones,” the lawmakers wrote in the letter (PDF).

More information about radio-enabled mobile devices can be found at FreeRadioOnMyPhone.org.

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