A Secret Radio Inside Your Phone?

Category: Mobile

Remember the good old days when cell phones included FM radio receivers? Well, most modern mobile phones still do, but you can’t use them. Why is this handy feature, which can provide free music even when you can’t get cellular signal, disabled and hidden? Read on to learn the reason...

FM Tuners In Mobile Phones

Blame it on the carriers, not the hardware makers who still include the FM circuitry in their phones. The carriers (AT&T, Verizon, and others) are the manufacturers' customers, and the carriers want the phones they sell to consumers to have those FM radios disabled.

Why? It's pretty simple… carriers prefer streaming (online) “radio” services because they make money on data traffic, but none on over-the-air FM.

Apple, Samsung, and LG are among the OEMs who have disabled the FM radio chips in their phones. But not all phone makers are playing along. HTC, Motorola, and Blackberry have not.

Hidden FM Radio in Mobile Phones

Among U. S. carriers, only Sprint has enabled FM radio on phones connected to its network. So FM will work on FM-enabled phones sold by mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that are effectively Sprint resellers, e. g., Republic Wireless, Helio, and others. Virgin Mobile USA is a wholly owned subsidiary of Sprint and uses Sprint’s network, so FM radio will work on Virgin Mobile if the phone’s FM chip is enabled.

The National Association of Broadcasters wants FM chips enabled, of course. The NAB even developed an app for iOS and Android, called NextRadio, that provides real-time stations and program listings; one-tap feedback to stations; the ability to buy selected songs; bookmarking and history lists for finding favorite or recently played stations; and other interactive features.

The NextRadio App site has a list of supported devices (currently 26) and carriers who support FM radio (Sprint, Virgin Mobile, Boost Mobile, and more). No Apple devices are supported, but several Samsung products are, apparently at Sprint’s insistence; you have to buy one from Sprint, Virgin Mobile USA, or Boost Mobile USA, another wholly-owned Sprint subsidiary.

Why FM is Better Than Streaming Music

Consumers can benefit from FM radio in several ways. First, "Listening to streaming (music) drains your battery three to five times faster than listening to the exact same content on the FM chip," according to Jeff Smulyan is CEO of Emmis Communications, which owns radio stations across the USA. Emmis now owns the NextRadio app, too.

FM radio in mobile phones is not limited to fancy smartphones, nor is it something new. I can remember listening to FM radio broadcasts on lowly "feature phones" as far back as 2001.

They didn't have apps or Web access, but they did have music! So clearly, this is not a technology problem.

Second, streaming music eats up one’s data allowance. I see many people plugged into earbuds constantly, and wonder what their data bill looks like at month’s end. FM radio could conserve data just as VoiP calling over WiFi conserves cellular network minutes.

Third, FM radio might be your only source of information during an emergency. Of course, both the cellular and fixed-base Internet networks would have to be disrupted or overlaoded, but you never know. Superstorm Sandy and the North American derecho storm, both in 2012, overloaded cellular networks and shut down power to many routers.

The carriers are being completely disingenuous about FM radio. Responding to the NAB’s call for the FM chips to be activated in all phones, Jot Carpenter, VP of government affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, arrogantly told the Las Vegas Review-Journal:

“What Americans really want is the ability to stream, download and customize music playlists to meet their personal preferences,” Carpenter said, “and that’s NOT what the traditional FM radio offers.”

So umm, why not both?

Carpenter also said that “Activating a smartphone’s FM chip isn’t free,” as if deactivating it after building it into a phone is. What he really means is that the carriers will accommodate radio stations in exchange for a piece of the latter’s revenues. In fact, the NAB is negotiating just such a deal with the CTIA-Wireless Association right now.

Of course, any radio station could simply invest in streaming tech to reach its Internet-obsessed audience. But if it’s cheaper to pay the carriers to enable their FM chips, that’s good business.

If you would like to lobby your carrier or phone maker to enable the FM chip for which you paid, but cannot use, the Free Radio on My Phone website has a page that makes it quick and easy to contact AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, Apple, your member of Congress and the FCC. There's even sample text included.

How do YOU feel about the lack of FM radio on your phone? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "A Secret Radio Inside Your Phone?"

(See all 33 comments for this article.)

Posted by:

19 May 2015

Thank you Bob for this informative article. I'd like to post it on Facebook to make more people aware, but don't see a Facebook icon for posting or sharing it. I live in an earthquake zone and I'm sure if enough people were made aware we could lobby the CRTC to make it mandatory for service providers to make it available.

Posted by:

19 May 2015

As you rightly say, we have paid for the feature in the price of the phone so are being forced to pay through the nose for an alternative.
Do the carriers care more for their customers or their shareholders? For an answer, consider the way that a mobile phone is limited to about fifteen seconds of ring before it cuts to answerphone.
I cannot remember the last time I fished the phone out of my pocket in time to answer it, so to find out what the caller wanted, I am expected to use my carrier's service to call him/her back. Who benefits? Go figure (as you Americans so quaintly command).

Posted by:

Ed C
19 May 2015

Thank you so much Bob, I never knew about this . I have an HTC One M8 so I downloaded the app and it notified me my phone would work across all carriers. It requires headphones or an external speaker to be plugged in so I will try it later when I get home..... cool :-)

Posted by:

19 May 2015

You know I pay a LOT of MONEY for that phone and now I feel cheated.

Posted by:

Charly Urban
19 May 2015

Would have been an awesome app back in the 70's and 80's. Unfortunately,FM is now a corporate wasteland of garbage and lack of choice. Here in Birmingham AL,there is one alleged "rock" station that plays the exact same 25 songs over and over and over and over and over. The same corporations own every station and there is absolutely no local programming allowed, PERIOD. Idownloaded and checked it out going against hope that maybe there were more stations that I was unaware of but as with everything in Alabama, just disappointment. Maybe in NYC where I grew up they still have decent stations but I guarantee that most of the country is owned and programmes by the same two corporations. Good luck with your journey but mine had ended within five minutes.

Posted by:

19 May 2015

I went to the link where I could contact my carrier about this issue. I decided to send an email. The site-supplied text bordered on rude and brash; certainly unworthy of review by a customer-service person receiving same. I would suggest a direct, but more polite approach. Something about getting more flies with honey than salt...

Posted by:

19 May 2015

Does anyone know about unlocked phones purchased directly from 3rd party vendors? There seems no reason they couldn't be switched on.

Posted by:

Greg Fontenot
19 May 2015

The ability to hear the broadcast of the National Weather Service and Emergency Network System is in the public interest. The people own the airwaves -- not big business. GregPaul

Posted by:

19 May 2015

Nokia lumia 635 at&t windoz go phone here. Fm radio app factory installed and works. Haven't activated with at&t. Wifi only at present. Need more windoz apps but pretty much love the 8.1 OS.

Posted by:

Chuck Cronan
20 May 2015

Sorry, but my Nokia Lumia 830 has FM Radio as a built in app. Has a page of its own in the manual. The earphones act as the the antenna.

Posted by:

20 May 2015

Would like to have FM on my Apple phone. I don't go in for purchasing and don't know how to access iTunes--another of my "to-do" list of things to know!

Posted by:

20 May 2015

The huge cracks in the crumbling foundation of the big carriers have been caused by GREED..... Back in the 70s and 80s, FM was cool. Here in south eastern Wisconsin, FM is a vast wasteland of repetitious, bad music and lots of loud, annoying commercials. I actually listen to Public Radio now and then. We need some good old fashioned pirate radio stations like they had in Europe back in the late 60s! Anyone remember Radio Luxembourg or Radio London?

Posted by:

20 May 2015

One advantage of living in security-conscious Israel is that we not only don't have to fight to get radio broadcasts over the phone (I have an app called "FM Radio" which even changes wavelengths automatically when I move from one broadcast area to another so I remain on the same station), they even have wavelengths which broadcast SILENCE at night in time of emergency so we can go to sleep safe in the knowledge that the radio or phone will burst into action when we need it.

Posted by:

20 May 2015

To Gary:

I certainly remember Radios Luxembourg and London but better by far was Radio Caroline, founded apparently because even Luxembourg (whose sound quality was uneven at best) was taken over by the record establishment. I think I recall listening to the first day's broadcasting by the much missed John Junkin back in '64.

Posted by:

23 May 2015

I wonder whether the U.S. service providers request that manufacturers disable the ability to use the cell-phone as an MP3 player, for the same reason they request to disable the FM receiver.

This article just added another reason to a long list of reasons to NEVER buy a cell-phone from a service provider.

>>>> The carriers...are the manufacturers' customers...

This is the core problem!

The manufacturers' customer should be the USER, the one who pays for both the device and for the cellular service.

Posted by:

Jeanie D.
23 May 2015

I have to agree with what Robert A. said. I live in an area (in hurricane territory) that sadly has not one FM radio station with a decent playlist for anyone who isn't either a senior citizen, a teen, a country music fan, or Spanish-speaking (and of course, a fan of the genre of Latino music they play). I don't stream music, I play the music I've downloaded onto my phone. I miss hearing new music in the adult alternative category, but I'll live with it. What I wouldn't like, though, is to be unable to listen to news reports the next time a hurricane (or 3, as in 2004) blasts through my area.

Posted by:

25 May 2015

One of the lucky ones here...my Lumia 520 (prepaid) phone is one of the ones that does have the FM radio chip built in. Found a fabulous app (FM Radio X+) at the Windows Phone store that is dead simple to use, and have that pinned to my start screen. So I now have free FM radio available wherever I go...no cellular charges and no WiFi connection required...and all the mobile phone services I need via my prepaid contract with my carrier (Rogers in Canada), and I pay less than $100 per YEAR for all of it. Huge thanks to you, Bob, for this invaluable tip! I had no idea FM radio was available on my phone until I read your article.

Posted by:

26 May 2015

I'd love to have access to FM radio on my cell phone! Grew up listening to the radio, and it's still my favorite source of local information when we lose power due to hurricanes, etc. Lately I've been streaming a good bit of radio from other parts of the country when local stations don't meet my needs - but I'd love to be able to use that chip instead!

Posted by:

26 May 2015

Thanks for the informative article. As usual, it's all about the money!!!

Posted by:

26 May 2015

Please. No "ummms" in your articles! As you say, grammar is important.

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