For 19 nonstop hours as Hurricane Irma lashed Florida, disc jockey Nio Fernandez broadcast updates in Spanish from the 92.5 Maxima radio studios in St. Petersburg, Fla., fielding updates from those trapped in their homes as wind and rain whipped through the area.
“There was a sense of desperation in people’s voices,” he said of callers to the station. “They needed to know what was happening.”
Fernandez’s efforts made it possible for listeners who had lost power, cell or internet service — as many in the region had — to keep up with the storm’s progress using FM radio chips embedded in their smartphones.
But not iPhone users. Though the phone includes the FM chip, Apple has chosen not to activate the feature, a move critics say could be putting lives in danger.
The issue has drawn fresh scrutiny following hurricanes that devastated Puerto Rico, and parts of Texas and Florida. On Thursday, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai called on Apple to activate the chips in the name of public safety.
“I hope the company will reconsider its position, given the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria,” Pai said in a statement. “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.”
In Congress, Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida is leading calls for mobile phone manufacturers to activate the FM radio chips embedded in nearly all smartphones. Those exhortations have been mainly directed at Apple, whose iPhone accounts for more than 40 percent of the U.S. smartphone market.
“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,” said Dennis Wharton, a spokesman for the National Association of Broadcasters. “The notion that Apple or anyone else would block this type of information is something that we find fairly troubling.”
The group, which represents radio-station owners, has been lobbying the industry for several years to allow phone users access to the FM radio feature. Now, many of the major manufacturers — including Samsung Electronics, LG Electronics and Motorola Solutions — allow the use of the chip. Apple is the only major holdout, according to Wharton.
Critics say Apple doesn’t want to cannibalize its streaming service by giving iPhone owners access to free radio service over the airwaves. An Apple spokeswoman said the company wouldn’t comment on the matter.
While surveying the damage caused by Hurricane Irma, Nelson told WBBH-TV in Fort Myers, Fla., “There’s got to be a way we can activate the chip.” A spokesman for the senator said he was considering writing phone manufacturers on the issue but hasn’t called for a mandate.
“The bottom line is consumers need critical information in times of emergency,” Nelson said. “If technologies, such as radio chips, exist that will help do that during times of emergencies then companies should be doing everything in their power to employ their use.”
Broadcast radio is often the most durable form of communication during large-scale disasters when other infrastructure fails, said Jamie Barnett, the former public safety chief of the Federal Communications Commission. Allowing people to tune in through their phones would allow them to stay informed in drastic circumstances like those recently seen in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico, said Barnett, a lawyer at Venable LLP in Washington.
In August 2013, the radio industry, in cooperation with Sprint, introduced the NextRadio app, which allowed users to listen to FM radio either through the chip embedded in their phones or by streaming stations over the internet. Last month, Internet streaming through the app became available on Apple iOS, but the company didn’t move to unlock FM chips in their phones.
The FM feature is included with the Qualcomm chips installed in virtually every smartphone on the market today, including the iPhone. However, not all device manufacturers choose to enable the function, according to a Qualcomm spokesman.
Pai, the FCC Chairman, said in February that as of last year only 44 percent of smartphones in the U.S. had their FM chips activated. In Mexico, that number is 80 percent, Pai said.
“It seems odd that every day we hear about a new smartphone app that lets you do something innovative, yet these modern-day mobile miracles don’t enable a key function offered by a 1982 Sony Walkman,” he said then. At the same time, he has refused to call for a mandate requiring the chip be activated in the phones and has expressed doubt that the FCC would be able to issue or enforce one.
CTIA, a trade association representing the wireless industry, opposes requirements that chips be turned on and said people can choose for themselves whether they want a phone with an activated FM chip.
“The marketplace is working and consumers are in the best position to choose the devices that meet their needs,” said Scott Bergmann, the CTIA vice president for regulatory affairs, in a statement. “We concur with FCC Chairman Pai that there is no legal or factual basis for a government mandate.”
Because Apple does not activate the chips at purchase, and there is little to no cell service on Puerto Rico, the company wouldn’t be able to activate the chip over-the-air unless people are within signal range or bring their phones into a store.
Fernandez has been hearing from listeners with relatives on the island who describe an apocalyptic scene with dehydrated and dying people seeking medical attention. He said that activating the chips would “absolutely” make a difference, as cell towers are dead but radio stations are broadcasting information to residents.
For his part, Fernandez said the ability to listen to radio broadcasts through the FM chip would be “instrumental” in a disaster. “Because you just don’t know what will happen.”