FM chip battle takes stage at NAB convention in Vegas

A continuing battle between FM radio organizations and cellphone service providers made its way Tuesday to the National Association of Broadcasters convention in Las Vegas.

NAB, along with NPR and American Public Media, teamed to create NextRadio in 2013, a free smartphone app that allows users to listen to FM radio on their cellular devices.

The apps work via chips — that work like radio antennas — built into smartphones, NextRadio spokeswoman AJ Rudolph said. But smartphone makers such as Apple and mobile carriers such as Verizon and AT&T turn off the chips.

Mobile companies profit when users consume mobile data through the Internet or radio streaming apps, including Pandora, Spotify and TuneIn, Rudolph said.

“They just want consumers to pay for data,” Rudolph said Tuesday.

Preventing users from free access to FM radio hurts local stations, Rudolph said, and removes an important resource for receiving emergency alerts in the event that wireless data fails.

The issue was a subject of NAB President and CEO Gordon Smith’s opening speech Monday. Smith, a former Republican senator from Oregon, gave full support to the NextRadio app, now owned by Emmis Communications.

“NAB is pleased to support the Next­Radio campaign,” Smith said, “as this technology is widely supported by our members and strengthens the future of radio.”

But Jot Carpenter, vice president of government affairs for CTIA-The Wireless Association, isn’t onboard.

Activating a smartphone’s FM chip isn’t free, Carpenter said, and traditional FM radio is low on smartphone consumers’ priority lists.

“What Americans really want is the ability to stream, download and customize music playlists to meet their personal preferences,” Carpenter said, “and that’s not what the traditional FM radio offers.”

For companies to consider activating the chips, the demand would have to be there, Carpenter said.

Though FM chips remain shut off in the majority of smartphones, Rudolph remains hopeful for the near future. More than 250,000 customers have made requests for mobile companies to turn on the chips since the NextRadio app launched a national advertising campaign in February, she said. Some phone manufacturers, like Samsung, and mobile providers, like Sprint, have already activated the FM chip.

“It’s a battle, but this is good for all of radio,” Rudolph said. “We’re getting meetings now and it’s moving along.”

Representatives for Apple, Verizon and AT&T could not be reached after multiple requests for comment.

NAB show floor hours continue from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. today, but shorten to 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Thursday. Show locations include the Las Vegas Convention Center, Renaissance Las Vegas, Westgate, Wynn Las Vegas and Encore.

An estimated 1,700 exhibitors from 159 countries are showcasing the latest broadcasting technology.

Contact Chris Kudialis at ckudialis@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0283. Find him on Twitter: @kudialisrj.

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