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updated 8/29/2010 3:15:14 PM ET 2010-08-29T19:15:14

 

Federal legislation proposed by the U.S. National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is causing an uproar in the electronics industry because it aims to force a significant change in all future cell phones and similar portable devices: They would all be required to include an FM broadcast tuner. In other words, all new cell phones would be required to be able to receive FM broadcasts. And it's not just cell phones: The proposed Federal law would require all similar portable electronics, including PDAs, media players, and perhaps wireless digital tablets, to come with built-in FM tuners.

At first glance this looks like the broadcast industry making a naked grab for market share by forcing all cell phone users to pay for and carry around FM radios.

Part of what fosters that view is that the NAB's partner in this proposal is the RIAA, the Recording Industry Association of America. The RIAA, of course, has no connection or specific interest in emergency communications, but it does expect to reap royalty benefits from the increased audience of cell phone users required to carry around FM radios.

But that's not how the NAB and RIAA portray it. They claim the reason reason for their proposal is public safety.

In an interview with CNET, NAB executive VP Dennis Wharton cited the problem of cell networks becoming overloaded during emergencies and stated that “there would be a public benefit to have free and local radio on all of these devices.” So when emergencies happen, instead of using your phone or mobile browser to get news via phone or Internet, you'd switch your phone to FM Radio mode to learn what's happening. That's the idea the NAB and RIAA are putting forward.

The NAB and RIAA also claim their proposal gives consumers more music choices: Instead of just listening to MP3s and Internet music sources on your portable electronic device, you'd be required to hav e an FM tuner with you at all times so you could also listen to music on FM radio. The NAB and RIAA claim it's no big deal for manufacturers to include FM capability into every portable device, a claim hotly disputed by the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), which represents manufacturers of consumer electronics. The NAB, of course, hotly disputes in return. The one thing that can't be hotly disputed by anyone is that adding FM tuners to every portable device will not be free – it will certainly cost something and that cost will be borne as higher prices for consumers.

An FM tuner in a phone or a media player is an interesting idea, so interesting that some manufacturers have for years offered FM tuners on MP3 players and even some phones. But the idea hasn't exactly caught fire in the marketplace. Even the ubiquitous Apple iPod once offered an FM tuner option, but on newer iPods it's no longer supported due to lack of demand.

(Personal experience: This writer was one of those who bought and still own an iPod with the FM option and also owned an RCA MP3 player with FM built in. It just seemed a good idea. But in truth I've never used the FM much because I already have so many other ways to listen to FM, both at home and in the car, that FM on the MP3 player just seems superfluous.)

So at present the primary proponents of FM tuners on mobile devices are the NAB and RIAA. But this proposal bears close watching by everyone because the proposed legislation put forward by NAB and RIAA would make such devices mandatory. Whatever its public merit, it's what in politi-speak is sometimes termed rent-seeking : writing into law a requirement that will entrench one process or technology at the expense of all others. In this case it amounts to seeking a special monopoly privilege, requiring everyone who buys a portable device to buy an FM tuner whether or not the buyer wants one. It's that aspect of the proposal that has engendered strong opposition from both electronics manufacturers and consumer advocates.

A relevant and very basic question to ask is if FM radio should be enshrined as a primary source of emergency information. FM broadcasters are primarily music stations with a few specialty stations (mostly small public radio and religious broadcasters) thrown in for variety. In a civil emergency how many of FM music stations would be equipped or even willing to switch over to emergency coverage? If providing emergency information were the true goal then why not AM band instead, where area propagation is better and all stations are already set up for emergency broadcasting? (Part of that answer is that AM-tuner components are much larger than the FM equivalent.) Or what about Weather Band, which is already used daily for emergency-alert information? Is it because AM band and Weather band generate little if any music-royalty revenue? One has to wonder.

The debate on this will play out over the next several months. Stay tuned.

 

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