Sunday, September 11, 2011

FCC Commisioner Copps - FM in Mobile for Public Safety?

The radio industry has been trying to get the capability to receive FM stations added to cell phones and other mobile devices for a while now.  Originally touted as a mechanism to combat declining listening, the NAB and other industry groups has attempted to have language requiring that all mobile devices carry FM tuner chips to a range of legislation, or considered by the FCC.
Now, in the wake of recent big storms and earthquakes, and exploiting the tenth anniversary of 9/11, the NAB has come up with a new strategy - FM receivers in cell phones are a public safety issue.  Citing the problems that mobile networks sometimes face in handling huge numbers of simultaneous calls, and broadcasters historic role in providing emergency information, they make the argument that "even when cell phones and wireless networks go down, radio works."  The radio industry has gotten the support of at least one FCC Commissioner with this argument.  Addressing a workshop on network reliability last week, Commissioner Michael Copps wieghed in on the idea -
I think the time is here for a thorough, calm and reasoned discussion about FM chips in handsets. We all acknowledge the need for redundancy in communications—especially emergency communications—and last week, during the earthquake, a lot of folks were only able to get  information through radio broadcasts when the phone networks got congested... And we must understand the sense of urgency that this requires, given the passing of a decade between 9/11 and now. Public safety has waited too long. Citizens have waited too long.
Copps does stress that while it's an idea worth looking into, and that there should be a serious consideration of costs and benefits, and considering what the experience has been in other places.
From my perspective, having mobile devices capable of receiving FM signals is not a bad idea - adding an FM receiver chip (or even an FM and TV receiver chip) is not very expensive, and adds to the functionality of mobile devices.  In fact, many cell phones and other mobile devices already have the chips embedded in them, as the ability to use cellphones to listen to FM radio is fairly widespread in other areas of the world.  And since most cell phones are built for global markets, that means that most of the high-end or smart phones sold recently in the U.S. are likely to have the chips.  The cell operators have decided not to turn them on.
Why haven't they? Well, there are several possible reasons -
  • first, they likely prefer that customers listen to music or radio signals over their data stream so they get associated revenues; 
  • second, many of the early trials suggest that using cells to listen to broadcasts uses significantly more power than if delivered over the data net, having a serious impact on battery life (this is also supported by experience elsewhere - even with the capacity to receive and listen to FM, use of cell phones for that purpose is minimal); 
  • and third, the mobile/wireless and broadcast industries are involved in a policy battle over who will get to utilize some of the spectrum freed up with the shift of TV broadcasting to digital, and including or opening access to broadcast receiver chips can be a valuable bargaining chip.
As for the "public safety" strategy?  It's clear that in terms of having ways to keep people informed during emergencies or disasters, the more ways you can have to distribute news and information, the better.  Emergencies and disasters don't all happen according to a single plan, and the more means of getting information out to the people you have, the more likely you are that one or more will remain available. Broadcasting has reach and is part of the Emergency Alert System, in which certain stations have direct links to FEMA, backup power generators, and other systems to help keep them on the air.  And what's considered essential for the general public is having a battery-powered radio and lots of spare batteries.  FM-equipped cell phones can be useful in the early stages, when people are away from home, work, or other places with regular radios.  But in a real disaster and power outage, you can't recharge your cellphone, and so its viability as an emergency information tool is severely limited.  To me, a "public safety" argument is valid, and can be used in support of other, stronger, arguments.  I'm not sure it's strong enough on its own to mandate universal inclusion in all mobile devices.
And personally, I find the surfacing of this strategy around the anniversary of 9/11 in poor taste.  It's also a poor example, to be honest. Almost all radio and TV stations in the New York area had their transmitters and antennas on top of the World Trade Center buildings.  Between the tower's fall wiping out transmission capacity, and the problems that radio transmissions have in downtown urban areas (with lots of steel in buildings interferring with signals), radio wasn't of much help in that situation, while cell phones were, after the initial service deluge.  Wired systems were even better, as they were minimally disrupted.

Sources - NAB Wants Cell Providers to Activate Radio ChipsRadio Online
Copps: "It's Time to Discuss FM Chips in Cell Phones", Radio Ink

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