As the recent Hurricane-Sandy-related storms have shown, wireless communications systems are vulnerable and frequently cell phone service is knocked out during major weather events. In a previous story here on AWARE last summer, we noted that having an FM radio receiver in all cellular handsets would provide a means to receive emergency information that comes directly from the broadcast station towers and does not depend on the vulnerable cellular networks. In the article, we explored why FM is currently lacking on U.S. wireless devices and highlighted the ongoing campaign of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) advocating for wireless carriers to provide FM chips in handsets. The work of broadcasters has apparently paid off, as Sprint announced this week that it would indeed begin activating FM in many of its smart phones. Even more encouraging is that the press release hints of interactive aspects to this FM tuner application, making it more than just a mere radio receiver.

Sprint Announces FM in Smart Phones
The move was brought to the attention of broadcasters in an article on the Radio World website, and further details are available in the Sprint press release. Sprint announced a preliminary agreement with representatives of the American radio industry that will enable Sprint customers to listen to FM radio stations from a broad spectrum of radio companies. The principal negotiator for the radio industry, Jeff Smulyan, CEO of Emmis Communications, cautioned that, “While there is much work to be done, today is a critical first step.” The move was hailed by NAB President Gordon Smith as well. Fared Adib, senior vice president, product development and operations at Sprint, stated, “This new, easy-to-use service adds another dimension to the versatility of our wide array of smartphones and will deliver a new avenue for thousands of local radio stations across the country to reach our customers.”

Not Just an FM Radio Chip
Sprint’s quote that this is a “service” hints that this capability will be more than just an FM radio receiver. The service will be available on select Android and Windows smartphones during the next three years. Sprint says it could be delivered through the NextRadio tuner application, which is currently being demonstrated at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, in booth 9033. Sprint continues, “With the NextRadio tuner – expected to be available later in 2013 – Sprint customers would enjoy a wide range of interactive listener features not available today and would have the availability of local FM radio at their fingertips to access all forms of broadcast information.” The reference to “interactive” and calling the service an “application” certainly alludes to this being a hybrid of off-air reception married to an app on the phone. With few additional details being provided, we will need to see what this product ends up looking like as development is rolled out.

An Answer to CMAS Message “Check Media”?
As AWARE mentioned in our previous post, and as pointed out in a recent post on the EAS Forum, Commercial Mobile Alert System (CMAS) messages often end with the phrase “Check Media”, but most mobile handsets don’t include an FM tuner. With Sprint now taking the lead, perhaps other carriers will follow suit and provide a means for subscribers to immediately check the media on their handsets.

Broadcasters Must Step Up
As the EAS Forum post then finishes with, the onus is now upon the broadcasters to provide the emergency information. Now that we are getting what we wanted, broadcasters need to step up to the plate and have the information available when the public does indeed “check media”. The EAS Forum asks how broadcasters are to know when such a CMAS message goes out, and that is perhaps the next topic in the progression of this discussion. Broadcasters are now on notice that more of the public will have access to FM on cellular handsets through Sprint’s efforts, and indeed AWARE’s own research indicates that FM is increasingly being included in Bluetooth/WiFi/NFC (Near Field Communications) chips as well and will thus be more available for carriers to activate. Additionally, broadcaster mobile TV chips are on the rise in mobile devices. Broadcasters have the opportunity to be the go-to local emergency source on mobile devices if we seize the moment.

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