Smyth: What Are We Debating?

May 2, 2011

Just put a radio in it.  And activate the chips that are already sitting in cell phones throughout the country.  That’s what I say to the phone manufacturers who continue to restrict the public’s access to their local radio stations.

Let’s cut through the fine print and get to the heart of the matter:  there seems to be no other reason for the carriers’ and manufacturers’ roadblock except control and revenue; the added costs of tuner chips are negligible. And those costs pale in comparison to the capital outlay networks are making to try to keep up with data demand which is increasing exponentially.  So, it’s not like a radio tuner is going to put a crimp in any carrier’s bottom line.  In other parts of the world, radio tuners are common in phones.

Why not here?

Of course, no consumer is going to go out and buy an inferior phone just because one or two manufacturers plugged in a tuner chip; however, put a tuner in my iPhone and you bet I’ll use it.

I believe broadcasters have the license obligation of providing crucial information to the public in times of emergency.  And the vast majority of broadcasters take that responsibility quite seriously.

Think back to the last time you were in a power outage.  No TV, no cell phone, no e-mail, no computer. Perhaps a tornado warning was issued for your area.  What did you do then?

Light a few candles and rustle up some fresh batteries for the radio.  Wouldn’t it be far easier and safer to get the necessary – even life-saving – information from your radio in your cell phone?

I know there is a program by the cellular carriers to send emergency instant messages or e-mails in a type of cellular EAS system. Under a pledge made to comply with the WARN Act, carriers agreed to send a text message of up to 90 characters warning subscribers of an impending emergency situation. But curiously, more than four years later, the cellular carriers have yet to deploy this text messaging system and have failed to deliver on its voluntary promise. In that time, American has witnessed the Virginia Tech shooting, devastating floods and tornadoes, the Times Square bombing incident and other numerous natural disasters.

Don’t Americans deserve better?  Why not count on the reliability of local radio stations in a time of crisis rather than a yet-to-be-deployed and unproven system that is a costly piece of self-interest on the par of phone folks? I, for one, do not want to take a risk on whether or not there is a backup generator at each cell tower in my town.
Radio stations have invested in a redundant and almost-bulletproof system of information distribution precisely because it is part of our governmental mandate.

A simple and economical mandate for the wireless carriers would complete the loop and save lives. There can be no debate about that.