Wheeler Says He Doesn’t Think the FCC Should Mandate FM Chip Activation

In the House Communications Subcommittee oversight hearing Thursday, broadcasters weren't getting a lot of love from FCC chairman Tom Wheeler on their push for FM chips in cell phones.

When talking about his plans to fix auction designated entity rules, Wheeler echoed an aside from Wednesday's Senate hearing. He said that the FCC would adjust the DE rules to insure they could not be gamed by "slick" lawyers, then added, as he had before, that was similar to the "slick" lawyers "playing around" with broadcast licenses.

Later in the hearing, Rep. Yvette Clarke (D-N.Y.) appeared to be looking for Wheeler's support in installing and activating FM chips in cell phones, saying she wanted her constituents to be able to receive life-saving emergency broadcast information after the next terrorist attack or natural disaster.

Wheeler said that he did not think it was the FCC's place to force wireless carriers to activate the chips. He said that there were some technical issues with the size of the antenna needed and its drain on the battery.

He said he knew broadcasters had been taking out ads asking consumers to contact the FCC and Congress, but suggested the best approach would be to let those consumers choose for themselves.

NAB has argued that unless the chips are widely available and activated, consumers don't have the choice to make.

Following the hearing, NAB spokesman Dennis Wharton tweeted a link to FEMA administrator Craig Fugate's support of activating the chips as a way to allow phones to continue to get life-saving info when cell systems are overloaded or taken out.

In another context, the FCC is considering mandating battery backup power for VoIP service to insure that life-saving information can get through when the power goes out.

“At a Congressional hearing today, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler seemed to dismiss the value of having activated FM radio chip in smartphones and mistakenly suggested that broadcasters are seeking a government mandate,” NAB said in a statement following the hearing.  

“NAB and broadcasters are NOT seeking a government mandate; we merely seek the FCC's help in using its influence in enabling a technology that can save lives in emergency situations.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.