UN agency backs enabling smartphones as FM radios

Information is crucial during disasters like the Fort McMurray wildfire, but mobile devices and their networks are fragile. THE CANADIAN PRESS

“Citizens of the world would benefit” if all mobile devices could be enabled as FM radios, the International Telecommunication Union announced earlier this year.

Nearly all smartphones have a chip that makes them capable of working as FM radios, but only about a quarter have one that’s activated or easily activated.

The ITU is an arm of the United Nations which deals with information and communication technology.

Broadcasters have long argued that being able to turn a phone into a radio would be useful in a major emergency, like last year’s wildfires in northern Alberta. During a disaster, people’s hunger for information overloads networks (which may be damaged as well) and quickly runs down batteries, which can’t be easily recharged.

By comparison, the ITU argues, in a statement issued earlier this year, traditional radio is “robust,” and “total loss of service during service disruptions rarely occurs.”

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“Radio receivers are generally highly reliable, regardless of almost any disorder or disruption taking place in the affected disaster area.”

READ MORE: Unlock the hidden FM radio locked in smartphones, broadcasters urge providers

WATCH: Broadcasters are putting pressure on cellphone makers and providers to activate FM chips already installed on smartphones. 

Click to play video: 'Campaign launched to unlock FM signal on smartphones' Campaign launched to unlock FM signal on smartphones
Campaign launched to unlock FM signal on smartphones – May 19, 2016

In radio mode, a smartphone uses very little battery power and doesn’t need connectivity. You do need earphones, not to use as earphones, but so the phone can use the wire as an antenna. You also need an app.

But it also needs two things that are harder for the ordinary user to arrange: the phone maker needs to have activated the chip, and your carrier has to allow the technology.

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Phone makers vary in their approach: Android devices are largely ready to go, while Apple’s iPhones aren’t. (A list of phones that can be used as radios is here.)

In the meantime, warns U.S. emergency official Craig Fugate, your phone “becomes a brick” in an emergency, at least as a connected device.

“There is a tendency to think that things that work in our everyday lives are going to work the same way in a disaster. And a lot of our tendency to use streaming devices is dependent on broadband capabilities that are vulnerable in a disaster.”


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Global News is a division of Corus Entertainment, a member of the North American Broadcasters Association, which supports enabling radio capabilities in mobile devices. Corus operates radio stations across Canada. 

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