A fact-based response to the critics of radio-capable cell phones

The response from critics to NAB’s support for the inclusion of radio receivers on mobile phone devices sold in the U.S has been predictable and follows a customary Washington tactic: Arguments against this pro-consumer feature have been long on exaggeration, rhetoric and factual inaccuracies.

It’s time to set the record straight.

Radio’s audience is GROWING. According to the most recent report from Arbitron, the ratings company that tracks radio listeners, radio reaches more than 239 million American listeners age 12 and older. That
figure represents an INCREASE of seven million listeners in just one year. Any claim that radio is “dying,” “declining” or “losing listeners” is simply not accurate. Indeed, just this weekend, The New York Times called radio “a classic evolutionary survivor” in an article detailing the history of media and technological consumption changes.

When given the choice, consumers like radio-capable cell phones. In fact from a global perspective, it’s expected that there will be roughly 700 million FM-capable cell phones on the market by next year, representing 45 percent of all active cell phones.

– A 2008 study from TNS found that 45 percent of mobile users in Latin America and Asia cite AM/FM radio as one of their top three reasons for purchasing a mobile phone — making it more popular than mobile Internet access, texting and a camera function. Read the study here.

– A recent study from research firm Alan Burns & Associates shows that 47 percent of women in the U.S. and nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of female early adopters would buy a different cell phone if that phone contained a built-in FM receiver. Fifty-four percent said they would listen to local radio more if they had a radio-enabled mobile phone. Read the study here (and see slide 62 for details).

– A 2008 study commissioned by NAB’s technology advocacy program, NAB FASTROAD, concluded that the growth of FM capability in mobile handsets is “very robust” from a global perspective, and expected to reach 45 percent by 2011. Read the study here (and see pp. 18 for global penetration data.)

Radio serves as an information lifeline during times of crisis. Whether it’s lifesaving information provided during Hurricane Katrina, evacuation information broadcast during the terrorist attacks of September 11, or a missing child saved with an AMBER Alert — local radio stations are uniquely positioned to reach their listeners with timely, critical information. It’s why the American Red Cross and FEMA routinely advise Americans to carry a portable radio in their emergency safety kits.

Don’t take my word for it: Here is how authorities in Alabama conveyed information to residents when a tornado touched down in April:

How authorities in Alabama conveyed information to residents when a tornado touched down in April.

Cell phone subscribers deserve access to radio’s free service. In a society where cell phones and other mobile devices are increasingly ubiquitous, it makes perfect sense to have radio-enabled chips in these devices, particularly from a public safety perspective.

The WARN Act, signed into law nearly four years ago, established a process by which cell phone providers volunteered to devise a system for reaching their subscribers during times of emergency. The cell phone industry’s answer to date has been a text-based system limited to 90 characters, which has still not yet been deployed. And while the mobile phone industry has continued to delay the launch of their text-based emergency alert system, citizens across the country have weathered numerous natural and terrorist-related disasters including the Virginia Tech shooting, the California wildfires, the devastating floods in Iowa and Tennessee, Snowmaggeddon 2010, and the Time Square bomb threat.

In every instance, Americans faced each disaster and threat without the benefit of the cell phone industry’s text-based system.

Our solution: Embed a radio receiver that could be accessed by cell phone users during times of emergency, which would expand the reach of critical disaster information to the 257 million mobile phones currently being used by Americans.

Indeed, the lifeline information provided by local radio stations would be far more beneficial to residents threatened by an emergency than any text-based system limited to 90 characters.

Curious what a 90-character emergency text might look like? Here are two possibilities:

90 characters doesn't give you a lot of options when disaster strikes.OR But it could point to cell phone subscribers to their local radio station.

Needless to say, 90 characters doesn’t give you a lot of information when disaster strikes. But it could point residents to their local radio stations.

When mass produced, an embedded radio receiver would cost pennies per cell phone. And while critics claim that a radio receiver would drastically drain a cell phone’s battery; that claim is simply not accurate. A typical cell phone with an FM radio chip could provide the cell phone subscriber with 10 or more consecutive hours of radio listening on a single battery charge. Given typical radio usage and the fact that the typical cell phone subscriber charges their phone on a daily or every-other-day basis, an FM radio chip would have a negligible effect on battery life.

But don’t tell that to our critics: They’d rather you believe — simultaneously — that a) no one wants an FM feature and b) an FM feature would be used at such extended lengths that it would drain the device’s battery. One reporter for a respected industry trade publication may have said it best when he wrote,  “If FM radio is so outdated and consumers are not interested in having it, then it won’t take away from their broadband plan usage, nor drain battery power because they won’t be listening to FM much, right? So what are they afraid of?”

A radio receiver would also provide cell phone subscribers with the ability to “tag” music heard on the radio, and purchase the music or related ringtones from the cell phone provider, giving consumers a direct sales point for music and cell phone providers with a new revenue stream.

A radio receiver would also free up network capacity for the mobile phone providers, as listeners seeking music could access popular songs over-the-air rather than through streaming applications that utilize network bandwidth. Given the cell phone providers migration toward pay-as-you go data plans, a free music alternative would be welcome news to cell phone subscribers looking to maintain an affordable cell phone plan.

There is Congressional support for radio-capable cell phones. Last November, a bipartisan
group of 60 U.S. House lawmakers wrote to FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski and Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano asking them to consider adding an FM radio receiver on mobile phones handsets sold in the United States, citing safety and emergency alert concerns. The letter can be read here in PDF format.

Radio capability is common on many other innovative devices. If, as our critics claim, radio capability on cell phones represents a lack of innovation, what do radio-capable MP3 players represent? The U.S. MP3 market enjoys a 70 percent penetration of radio capability. Indeed, even the iPod nano  contains FM capability.

Americans deserve better. After four years of dithering with a text-based emergency alert system, the mobile phone industry has still yet to activate any mechanism to reach their subscribers during an emergency. And even when they do, that service will be limited to a mere 90 characters in length, providing little if any detail on evacuation information, or food and shelter locations. That is the hallmark of radio during times of crisis.

So what’s motivating critics to oppose the the inclusion of radio receivers in cell phones? It could
be a simple case of anti-competitive behavior. Every minute a cell phone user listens to free, local radio is one less minute spent using the wireless industry’s fee-based applications. Moreover, since listening to local radio would require no network bandwidth, cell phone subscribers wouldn’t be forced to pay the escalating rates associated with streaming data-rich, fee-based applications.

As David Bernard, managing director of DB Marketing Technologies told E-Commerce Times recently, “FM Radio competes with audio streaming and music download services as a source for music. Depending on the handset … the effect of free FM radio on the handset could be decreased add-on service usage, as in the case with cellular carriers’ music services, or decreased app store revenue from manufacturer’s app stores.”

Americans deserve a better choice than what is being offered by the gatekeeper critics. Sound public policy and public safety considerations warrant free and local radio-enabled cell phones.

Update Aug. 29: The following sentence was re-added:

“A recent study from research firm Alan Burns & Associates shows that 47 percent of women in the U.S. and nearly three-quarters (73 percent) of female early adopters would buy a different cell phone if that phone contained a built-in FM receiver.”

This was noted in the original blog post emailed to reporters on Aug. 25, but inadvertently omitted when posted online.