Why Can’t I Listen to Radio If My Phone Has an FM Receiver In It?

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai publicly called Apple to activate the FM receiver chips found on iPhones for public safety reasons. Many Android phones also contain dormant FM chips. But, if your phone is equipped with an FM receiver, why can not you already listen to the radio?

There is a small problem with the application of Ajit Pai: As Apple noted, the iPhone 7, the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X do not even have an FM chip. But the iPhone 6s and the old iPhones do it. So why did not we listen to the radio on these phones? Could Apple just activate the radio feature with a software update?

Why is this FM chip here?

Most people probably are not aware that older iPhones (and many Android phones) even have FM radio receiver chips in the first place. After all, no iPhone has ever been able to function as an FM radio, although some Android phones have.

So why did Apple choose to add this FM radio hardware in the first place, if Apple does not plan to use it? The answer is that Apple has not chosen to add the FM radio hardware, not really.

Despite the marketing of Apple, which could lead you to believe that every part of the iPhone was designed and manufactured by Apple itself, this is not the case. On an iPhone 6s, the LTE modem for the cellular network connection was created by Qualcomm. You can see it if you look at disassembling done by sites like iFixit that rip devices and identify their different components.

Specifically, Apple chose to use the Qualcomm MDM9635M LTE modem for the iPhone 6s. This part of Qualcomm comes with the included FM radio reception feature, as many other modems from Qualcomm do. It is simply easier for Qualcomm to include all these features in its hardware and allow device manufacturers to disable them if needed.

This was taken from the inside of an iPhone 6s. The orange bit is the Qualcomm LTE modem, which contains an FM radio receiver.

Apple did not request this FM radio receiver hardware and did not intend to use it, so Apple disables it and ignores it. The FM radio receiver can be more often activated in developing countries where the ability to listen to radio on a smartphone is in high demand. You can also find it on some Android smartphones in the United States. But the manufacturer has to choose to activate it.

Why Apple can not activate it simply by "flipping a switch"

Apple can not simply deploy a quick software update that allows FM radio functionality on the iPhone 6s and older iPhones. We do not know all the limits, because Apple is just pointing out that the iPhone 7, the iPhone 8 and the iPhone X can not stand that in the hardware. But even on an iPhone 6s, Apple would have the following problems to deal with:

The FM chip may not be physically connected in a way that even allows it to activate. Only Apple really knows if this is true and how difficult it would be to connect.
The firmware of the underlying chipset will need to be updated.
The functionality of the FM radio should be tested to ensure that it does not cause any problems with the cellular, Wi-Fi and Bluetooth reception of the iPhone.
Apple should add a Radio app to iOS so users can use the radio.

Turning on FM radio, even if it was physically possible – and we do not know if that is the case – would be a major project for Apple.

But why was not he stuck in the first place?

Thus, iPhones and various Android phones have FM radio hardware only because this is a standard part of the modem, and they can not activate it easily after the hardware output. But this leads to the question: Why was not it activated in the first place?

This brings us to the realm of speculation, of course. But it is clear that there are economic incentives to not activate FM radio. For Apple, the lack of FM radio functionality pushes iPhone users to services like Apple Music, Beats 1 Radio and iTunes. For cellular carriers, the omission of FM radio encourages customers to stream music over the cellular network and use more expensive data.

Or, maybe Apple just did not want to put the hours of work at the expense of hardware and software. Let's be honest: Consumers in the United States have not exactly required the FM radio feature in their phones. It is still possible to buy phones with this feature, and it's especially common in cheaper Android phones. The new Galaxy S8 phones from Samsung still include an FM radio receiver, but Samsung has not even bundled an app that lets you use it. If you download an FM radio receiver app on Google Play, you can listen to FM radio on the latest Galaxy phone. But this is not a feature that even Samsung thinks is worth mentioning. If this feature was in high demand, it might be more common.

Should FM chips be required and enabled?

The main argument in favor of FM radio functionality is public safety. The FM radio reception feature would allow people to receive emergency programming in the event of natural disasters such as Hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria, even when the cellular network goes down.

The National Association of Broadcasters, which represents broadcasters and broadcasters, asked manufacturers to activate the radio feature on their phones. Congress has also held hearings on this subject in the past. But former FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler decided not to require smartphone manufacturers to incorporate this feature, a decision that the current FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai shares.

In the end, people do not seem to care much about this feature. Consumers vote with their dollars. If the FCC commissioner and the government want manufacturers to allow FM radio functionality on their phones, they will likely have to pass a demanding law or regulation.

Of course, it is also possible that a massive change in public sentiment would lead customers to demand the functionality of FM radio, which the FCC commissioner seems hoping for. This does not seem very likely at the moment.

Image Credit: Disassembly images of the iPhone 6 provided by iFixit

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