Campaign demands telecoms unlock the FM radio found in many smartphones
Bell says some phones with FM chip available, Rogers says issue is on its radar
Your smartphone may include an FM radio chip but, chances are, it doesn't work.
Now, an online campaign has launched in Canada, putting pressure on telecoms and manufacturers to turn on the radio hidden in many cellphones.
Titled, "free radio on my phone," the campaign says that most Android smartphones have a built-in FM receiver which doesn't require data or Wi-Fi to operate.
The U.S. arm of the campaign believes iPhones also have a built-in radio chip but that it can't be activated. Apple wouldn't confirm this detail.
The radio chip in many Android phones also lies dormant. But the campaign says it can easily be activated — if telecom providers ask the manufacturers to do it.
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In Canada, however, most of the telecoms haven't made the move to get the radio turned on.
They'd prefer that you stream your audio, depleting your phone's costly data plan, claims campaign organizer, Barry Rooke.
"They make a lot more money off of streaming radio or other sources through the data transfer," adds Rooke, who is executive director of the National Campus and Community Radio Association.
Rooke's association, which is made up of member stations from across the country, created the campaign as an extension of one that broadcasters have already established in the U.S.
The Canadian campaign has received support from broadcasters like the CBC.
Traditional radio is facing increased competition from podcasts, streaming and other digital media.
Rooke says that smartphone radio has other advantages over streaming besides being free: it drains a lot less battery power and can prove vital during emergency situations, such as the Fort McMurray wildfire.
In times of crisis, cellular and internet service may be compromised and people often rely on local radio for emergency updates.
"It's a safety issue," says Rooke.
Putting pressure on providers
Canadians can already buy some select smartphones with an FM chip enabled — but the campaign specifically encourages people to push telecoms to provide all Android phones with the radios turned on.
"The idea is to put enough pressure on [providers'] customer service and publicly," says Rooke.
CBC News contacted all the major Canadian telecoms: Rogers, Bell Canada, Telus and Shaw. Only two replied.
Bell says it already offers activated FM radios in a number of its wireless devices.
Rogers doesn't but says it's on the company's radar.
"Enabling FM chips in our smartphone lineup requires the support of the device manufacturers and we're working with them," said spokesperson, Andrew Garas.
The campaign also plans to target Apple and pressure the company to get the FM radio working in the iPhone.
"IPhone is going to be a super challenge," says Rooke. He claims the company purposely makes the radio useless. Apple declined to comment to CBC News.
U.S. campaign proves successful
The American program has already convinced four major wireless providers, including Sprint, AT&T and T-Mobile, to unlock the FM radios in Android phones sold to customers.
The U.S. movement is still trying to convince Apple and telecom giant Verizon to come on board.
"It's a process of education and friendly arm twisting," says Dennis Wharton with America's National Association of Broadcasters.
The U.S. campaign has drawn support from National Public Radio and American Public Media, along with NextRadio, an app that provides FM radio on smartphones.
It has also received a plug from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the U.S. government's disaster aid agency.
In a video recorded for the campaign, FEMA administrator Craig Fugate argued that radio is critical in a crisis.
"When all else fails, you can still get broadcasters' information," said Fugate.
The tuner is just the 1st step
Smartphones don't come with a built-in antenna, so once you get your hands on a phone with a working radio, you will also need a stereo cable or wired headphones.
"The headphones act as an antenna," explains NextRadio's Maura Kautsky, who's based in Indianapolis, Ind.
NextRadio offers a free phone app which connects listeners to local radio stations. It will be available to Canadians in a few months, says Kautsky.
The app provides listeners with images and interactive content along with FM broadcasts. The company claims it uses only 20 per cent of a phone's data compared to streaming.
Customers can also switch to the "tuner only" mode to listen without data or Wi-Fi.
With Canadians grappling with rising prices for cellphone services, Rooke hopes people may embrace the chance to listen to music and news without the worry of going over data plan limits.
"It's free, that's one of the biggest things," says Rooke.