Activate our chips

We hate these hidden-hand-of-the-free-market moments that we occasionally get our faces slapped by.

Did you know your smart phone has a chip in it to receive FM signals? It’s turned on in most of the world. It’s turned off here in the United States, forcing people who use their cell phone to listen to music or news to stream data from non-local stations, which a) costs the individual in data fees, and b) undermines local stations that can (not that they do) offer local information that helps us to participate in our culture and democracy by attending events, knowing about local businesses, or hearing the news.

Many of us would never listen to FM radio on our cell phones. It’s a given that local stations are mostly driven by corporate decisions that are made in other markets, and we love the variety of themes and millions of songs that are available through internet services like Spotify and Pandora.

But you know when we would listen to local radio? We’d listen when there’s an emergency. Emergencies, weather or terrestrial, tend to knock out internet. If you lose power at your home, you lose your internet, and you probably lose your stereo receivers. Maybe you can stream local information on your 3G or 4G networks, but streaming data uses up your battery in nothing flat. In fact, studies show that streaming data eats the battery six time faster than using the FM receiver.

So you can see the game, right? Cell phones are manufactured for a global market so it’s cheaper to install the FM radio receiver than to manufacture two types of phones. In less free-market societies, the people get the choice of whether they use the chip. In ours, since the corporations always prefer a sure-thing and a lack of choice for consumers, we don’t get the choice, or rather, our choice is to either pay our providers for the data or not to receive the service on our phone that we want.

And the fact is, we pay for the installation of the chip, even though the provider chooses to turn it off. It’s in the cost of the phone.

That lack of choice is all well and good when you’re talking about something that has no practical use, but we’re not talking about something frivolous. We’re talking about what could be life and death situations when our cell phones are the only tools we have for communications. Obviously, cell service providers see the value in using cell phones for emergency information transmission because they started using Wireless Emergency Alerts to customers in targeted areas to give notice of severe weather, AMBER Alerts and presidential alerts in 2012, according to the website, which has a lot of information on this topic.

NPR, the National Association of Broadcasters, and many local radio stations are lobbying Congress to force carriers to enable the chip. Even Federal Emergency Management Agency administrator Craig Fugate argued that radio is critical in a crisis. “As more and more people use their smartphones as streaming devices to get news, get radio, get a lot of things like that over their networks, I don’t think people realize how vulnerable they get.”

Cell network providers are willing to risk your life to make a few bucks. This makes it obvious they don’t have the ethics to make this decision for themselves, so write your representatives, and ask them to force providers to activate the chip.