Is That an FM Radio in Your Pocket?

Broadcasters, tech companies, and musicians are clashing over the FM chips that live in most smartphones.

Broadcasters, musicians, and tech companies are fighting over the radio you didn't know you had in your pocket.

The radio is your smartphone: Even in the age of Pandora and Spotify, most phones have an FM receiver built in. But many manufacturers deactivate the FM receivers before shipping their phones; in the iPhone 6, for example, the same chip that handles Bluetooth and Wi-Fi can receive FM radio, but Apple has turned it off.

Broadcasters have long been trying to get handset manufacturers to turn the radios on. They say FM radio is a good alternative to Internet streaming because it doesn't use customers' data, and they emphasize the utility of radio in case of emergencies, when Internet and data connections could fail.

And, of course, it would expand radio's potential audience and reach to advertisers.

In the past, broadcasters have asked the Federal Communications Commission to consider requiring smartphones to include radio capabilities. Smartphone-makers and wireless providers resisted the push, saying the demand for FM radio on phones isn't there. Providers may also be wary of a service that could lead people to use less billable data.

According to research from the National Association of Broadcasters, 98 percent of the top-selling phones in the U.S. had an FM tuner, but only 20 percent of those phones had the radio activated.

A House bill introduced last week would take FM-chip requirements off the table completely. The bill, put forward by Republican Rep. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee and Democratic Rep. Anna Eshoo of California, would forbid the FCC from requiring smartphones to include radio capabilities.

"As more consumers use Internet radio, the bill ensures consumers aren't locked into outdated technology mandates and can choose how they access local news and music on their mobile device," Eshoo said in a statement.

The bill was applauded by technology trade groups like the Consumer Electronics Association, which represents thousands of companies, including major smartphone designers and manufacturers.

MusicFirst, a coalition of musicians' representatives and music businesses, said the proposed bill is also a win for music artists. Requiring FM radios in smartphones "would not only derail smartphone innovation but also undercut the growing market for digital radio that pays all creators for their work," the coalition's executive director, Ted Kalo, said in a statement.

The broadcasters' association said it opposed the bill, calling for wireless carriers to voluntarily activate radio capabilities in their phones. "For public safety reasons alone, FM chips already in cell phones should be turned on," said Dennis Wharton, the vice president for communications at the National Association of Broadcasters. But the association said it does not support federally mandated FM chips in smartphones.

The Blackburn-Eshoo bill also includes a provision that needles broadcasters even more. The proposed law would prevent owners of both TV and radio stations from receiving retransmission payments—money they are paid when cable and satellite stations play their local programming—for their TV station, unless their radio station pays artists for playing their music.

This provision is a complement to a bill introduced by Democratic Rep. Jerrold Nadler of New York earlier this month, which would require all AM/FM radio to pay artists for playing their music on the air.