Updated: Apple's lack of support for FM in iPhones decried in wake of hurricanes

Tim Cook, Apple CEO
Apple CEO Tim Cook. Image: Apple

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai renewed his call for Apple to activate support for FM radio in its iPhones, citing safety concerns in the wake of a rash of hurricanes.

But Apple said some of its latest iPhone models simply can't receive FM broadcasts.

Like almost all smartphones, iPhone models include a chip that could enable users to access broadcasts from FM radio stations through their phones. Unlike other major smartphone vendors, though, Apple has steadfastly refused to enable support for FM, presumably because the company doesn’t want free music offerings to compete with its own streaming audio service.

FM can be a vital source of news and information for users during emergencies, however, Pai said.

“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,” the chairman said in a prepared statement. “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 ‘(y)ou could make a case for activating chips on public safety grounds alone.’ 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 said some of its latest models don't have the chip, however, and noted that the phones do support emergency alerts.

“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,” the company said in a prepared statement to Rene Ritchie, an Apple analyst who tweeted the response. “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 antennas designed to support FM signals, so it is not possible to enable FM reception in these products.”

The company didn’t specify which other iPhone models have an FM chip.

Pai isn’t alone in his calls for Apple to enable support for FM in the iPhone. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, reportedly also backs the effort, and legislators are urging phone manufacturers to activate the chips in their smartphones—a move that is clearly directed at Apple—and the National Association of Broadcasters has lobbied the phone industry for years to allow users to access FM, as Bloomberg reported today.

“Broadcasters are providing information on how to evacuate quickly, where flood waters are raging, how to get out of harm’s way if there’s a tornado or a hurricane,” NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton told Bloomberg. “The notion that Apple or anyone else would block this type of information is something that we find fairly troubling.”

Apple declined to comment on the matter, Bloomberg said.

The NAB represents radio-station owners among other groups, of course, so it has a dog in the fight. But Apple appears to be increasingly isolated in its opposition to support FM, and the recent hurricanes have shown a spotlight on an issue Apple would surely prefer to avoid. And that may be enough to encourage the high-profile company to reverse course and activate the chips that already exist in its phones.

“Apple is the one major phone manufacturer that has resisted” supporting FM, Pai concluded. “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.”

This story was updated Sept. 28 to include Apple's reply via Ritchie's tweet, and to note that Commissioner Rosenworcel supports Pai's effort.