OPINION: Unlocking FM Capabilities On Smartphones Would Save Lives

Liam Sigaud | Writer for the American Consumer Institute

Your smartphone contains more computing power than the NASA space capsule that sent the astronauts to the Moon in 1969, but most its fancy features rely on a cellular connection. Without one you can’t talk, text, or access the Internet.

Yet cell towers are vulnerable during floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, wildfires, and other natural disasters. Even when towers aren’t destroyed or damaged, networks can become congested in emergencies as call volumes spike, making communication difficult or impossible.

Nearly all smartphones are equipped with radio chips capable of receiving free FM radio broadcasts when cellular service is down, but millions of Americans are deprived of the benefits of these capabilities because their phone’s manufacturer or wireless carrier has failed to activate their built-in antenna.

Local radio stations can become lifelines when other communications systems fail. Even when disasters disable cell towers, local radio stations are often able to keep broadcasting; many have backup generators to overcome grid failures.

In a crisis, the National Emergency Alert System can tap into a network of approximately 1,600 independent public radio stations located around the country. Combined, these stations can reach over 300 million Americans (more than 92 percent of the U.S. population), including residents of rural and remote areas without access to other media sources.

 Using FM radio, emergency management agencies can convey evacuation instructions, alert communities of emerging threats, and coordinate relief efforts.

The importance of FM radio during natural disasters has been demonstrated again and again. In emergencies ranging from hurricanes to wildfires, local radio stations have saved lives by transmitting information to vulnerable populations even when landline phones and cellular networks went dark.

After Hurricane Isaac made landfall in 2012, most of New Orleans lost power for several days. City residents were without cell service or internet connectivity. Meanwhile, local radio stations broadcasted critical emergency information night and day. For many listeners, local radio was their only connection to the outside world during that time, providing reassurance and comfort.

When Superstorm Sandy struck the eastern seaboard in 2012 and network overload prevented many users from receiving information through cellular devices, many turned to radios for emergency alerts.

After Hurricane Irma hit southern Florida last year, leaving millions without power, many residents used their smartphones to listen to FM radio alerts. An app that allows smartphone users to listen to radio broadcasts saw listener counts in Miami increase 8.5-fold compared to the week before the storm. In the Fort Myers region, the number of listeners was up 11.3 times.

Similar stories abound.

Emergency broadcasts are of little use, of course, if no one hears them. Nearly 25 percent of American households do not have a working battery-operated radio, according to a 2012 survey, putting them at risk in a crisis.

Most smartphone users can access FM radio signals simply by downloading an app, but some manufacturers and wireless carriers refuse to activate these capabilities for their users.

Enabling all smartphone radio antennas would come at virtually no cost, either to consumers or the telecom industry. As natural disasters become more frequent and intense, we cannot solely rely on cellular alert systems to warn people of danger. When disaster strikes, the option to access FM radio signals from a smartphone saves lives. It’s that simple.

Liam Sigaud works on economic policy and research for the American Consumer Institute.


The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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