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FM in cell phones

NAB and the FM in Cellphone Issue: The Disappearance of Radios

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The National Capital Radio and Television Museum in Bowie, Md., is home to radios dating back to the 1920s
Photo from
NPR.

Today is World Radio Day, a joint venture of ITU and UNESCO. UNESCO says

World Radio Day is about celebrating radio, why we love it and why we need it today more than ever. A day to remember the unique power of radio to touch lives and bring people together across every corner of the globe. Join the celebration!…Radio is a medium for the future. It has a duty to include young people, not just as listeners but as active producers and creators of content…In conflict and disaster zones, young international freelancers and local fixers contribute invaluably to the pursuit of information. They deserve to work in safety and security. Find out what can be done.


To celebrate this event, NPR had a piece this morning on “Finding A 'Radio That Is Just A Radio' In The Digital Age”. They sent their intrepid reporter out to buy “just a radio” - by which they meant a battery powered radio with a speaker but without a CD player, internet connection, etc. Good news is they found a convenient source even though the big box stores had nothing. Bad news is that source was Radio Shack! (However, they found alternatives available over the net.)

But this got me thinking about NAB’s past efforts in promoting HDRadio and in a statutory mandate for cell phones to include FM receivers. Earlier NAB blamed FCC for the failure of AM stereo since FCC did not immediately agree with NAB’s view of picking a technical standard. Of course, they conveniently ignore that AM stereo fizzled in other countries where the regulators kowtowed to the broadcasters and promptly picked a single standard. Just because we can build technology X does not necessarily mean that consumers want technology X.

So NAB Labs continues to discuss the availability of FM receive capability in smartphones, NAB provides a website radiorocksmyphone.com with this viewpoint:

Now, many Americans are demanding a FREE entertainment option as a feature on their smartphones – local radio! It's been around for decades, but it's better than ever – more music, more news, more choices than ever before. And best of all, it doesn't require a broadband connection or eat up your data plan.


The site has a list of “Radio Ready Cell Phones”: mostly from HTC, with a refurbished Blackberry, an Alcatel model, 2 models from LG and 3 from Samsung. (The list was last updated in June 2014 so maybe NAB isn’t taking this too seriously.)

I like radio, but I am a baby boomer not a “millennial”. Heck, I even have a ham radio license! I support NPR with donations and listening. But the way to keep radio from fading away is not to force consumers to buy a product they clearly are losing interest in; the way to preserve it is to have it carry content that people really want.
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US & Japanese Broadcasters Both Try to Keep Their "Fingers in the Dike"



On Saturday the following tweet appeared from NAB Labs - “an initiative of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) to foster innovation and propel broadcast television and radio into the future.”

NABonFM

One immediate question is what really is NAB Labs? Earlier this year we speculated that “NAB Labs might appear possibly promising, but is most likely just a PR effort from a PR-focused trade association wanting the appearance of a counterpart to CableLabs.” Is NAL Labs an “initiative” or is it a technical facility? First we see that the address is the same as the NAB headquarters - near the former FCC location. Not exactly a technical hotbed area, although I miss all those nice restaurants. How big is NAB Labs? No budget information can be found. Their site gives 10 names, but policy wonk readers will recognize that several have NAB policy positions and are not primarily involved in R&D or testing.

CableLabs

By comparison, the similarly named CableLabs near Boulder CO has 175 employees in the building shown above. While it is unclear what the total size of the building is, it includes “over 12,000 square feet of lab space to suppliers and members who wish to use this development area.”

EPRI
To give another example of how an industry develops a lab to support its members, consider the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), located in Palo Alto, CA - also more conducive to R&D than the Dupont Circle area. EPRI has 700 employees and an annual budget of nearly $400M. An inspection of their main office on Google Maps shows a complex with 8 buildings. So it would appear that both the CATV industry and electric power industry has “brick and mortar” labs, whereas “NAB Labs” is of a different genre.

But back to the original NAB Lab tweet. It dealt with the long standing FM in cellphone issue that has been a recurring topic here. This started as an attempt by NAB in 2009 to solve a totally unrelated copyright issue by agreeing with MusicFirst, a copyright holders group, to a package of terms that included joint lobbying for legislation to require FM receivers in all cellphones. While there has been no public discussion of such a legislative requirement recently, the new NAB Labs tweets signals something is warming up. The tweet has a link to a NAB Labs page entitled “FM Radio in Smartphones”.

NAB Labs has discovered data that

“indicates that essentially all of the 90 million smartphones sold in the U.S. during that period (2013) were equipped with an FM radio tuner, yet FM reception was activated for users in only about 4 percent of those phones. About 18 million of those phones (20 percent of the top sellers) have fully operative FM radios in their versions sold outside the U.S., indicating that FM reception could be easily activated by carriers in the U.S. versions, likely without changing the smartphone hardware.

Why does it matter? Americans are consuming more audio and video on the go than ever before. Smartphones and tablets have turned into walking entertainment centers. But the convenience of on-the-go entertainment can carry a hefty price tag as wireless companies charge by the bit. With FM radio capability, a mobile device user doesn't have to stream audio, but receives it over the air for free – with less battery drain on the device. And during crisis situations when cellular networks can go down, over-the-air radio stays on.”


Now if NAB is right, why doesn’t the marketplace work here? CTIA argues below that its does:


This continuing attempt by NAB to counteract marketplace forces sounded analogous to action by their Japanese counterparts a year ago. When faced with a new TV model with Internet capabilities that were threatening to their industry model. An English language peer in Japan reported

Panasonic says Japanese TV stations are refusing to air commercials for its new “smart” television, apparently because they feel threatened by its combined TV-Internet function.

Private broadcasters, in a rare case of turning down a major advertiser, have said they will not show commercials for the product, claiming the split screen simultaneously showing broadcast content and Web pages may confuse viewers, according to reports.


So it looks like Japanese broadcasters are also trying to put their finger in the dike to slow marketplace and new technology forces.


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