Radio-enabled cellphones: A voluntary approach to public safety

Once again, some of our friends in Washington are misrepresenting NAB’s position regarding equipping and enabling FM chips in cellphones. To be clear, NAB supports the VOLUNTARY adoption of radio receivers in mobile devices. Doing so would allow wireless subscribers to access emergency information during a crisis, and on a device many always keep at arm’s reach.

Coming off one of the worst years on record for natural disasters, broadcasters believe the time is now for a reasonable and factual discussion on the merits of radio-enabled cellphones. Policymakers such as members of the Congressional Black Caucus and former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps agree on the need for an honest discussion on the issue. After all, when a storm is approaching, or a flood is rising, or an evacuation is ordered, shouldn’t we put aside special interest politics and do what’s best in the public interest?

We have seen wireless carriers express opposition to radio-enabled cellphones by arguing the text message-based alert system established by the WARN Act is sufficient during an emergency. That claim rings hollow when the fact remains that these same carriers have had six years to implement this technology, and it’s still not deployed! George W. Bush was barely into his second term when this cellphone carrier promise was made? Why are the carriers dragging their feet?

A text-based system may be capable of alerting cellphone users to approaching danger, but messages restrained by the WARN Act’s 90-character limit cannot possibly keep up with a rapidly changing situation. As NAB has previously pointed out, a 90-character message may only direct you to another source of information for breaking news and timely updates.

Shouldn’t Americans have readily available access to a service that can provide up-to-the-second information when lives are at stake? Radio can and does provide that type of service, and it’s time for all cellphone carriers to voluntarily make it available to their customers.

Time and again, local radio stations have proven themselves capable of providing a continuous flow of timely information during emergencies. In advance of Hurricane Irene’s approach, FEMA Administrator Craig Fugate went so far as to say “local broadcasters…are going to have the most detailed information about what’s happening in your community.” Even if the power goes out or one can’t reach a traditional radio in time, having access to that information through a cellphone can give people a chance to stay out of harm’s way.

Once immediate danger has passed, radio-enabled cellphones can still help a community in its rescue, rebuilding and recovery efforts. Following the devastating tornado outbreaks in Missouri and Alabama last year, local radio stations became a community forum and a lifeline for survivors. People called into the stations searching for missing loved ones. Those capable of lending a hand offered their service through broadcast airwaves. Families that lost everything learned how to go about putting their lives back together.

Unfortunately, many were not able to access these critical communications if they did not have a battery-powered or car radio. Radio-enabled cellphones would put this time-sensitive information in the hands of many more people.

Radio receivers also allow broadcasting to relieve strain felt by wireless networks when data demands go up before, during and after an emergency. Rather than strain a congested network, users could access local radio stations on their phones and find the critical information they are seeking. For all their clamoring for more spectrum for mobile broadband, it’s unfathomable that wireless carriers would oppose a service that could free up airwaves to meet higher-than-normal demand.

Despite the benefits of radio chips and the overwhelming evidence the public would support the service, many wireless carriers claim there is no consumer demand for radio receivers. Apparently they never got the memo from smartphone manufacturer RIM, which recently announced it is equipping two of its newest BlackBerry models with FM radio capabilities. According to Inside Radio, Arun Kumar, RIM’s senior product software manager for multimedia, said the company made the decision because, “A lot of customers have been asking for FM for a while, so we took that to heart. We basically just listened.”

It is time for more wireless carriers to listen as well. Broadcasters take seriously our role as ‘first informers,’ and we are committed to working with wireless carriers to expand the availability of broadcast radio service in mobile phones.