This blog usually covers legal and policy issues, not product reviews.  And this article will at least try to relate policy decisions to a product review, but mostly it’s to share a cool new feature on my phone.  To explain, I am one of those holdouts still using a Blackberry.  In dealing with new media clients, I almost feel like I have to make excuses for still using a Blackberry, but as an attorney who travels frequently and writes many emails from the road, the physical keyboard really makes a difference – at least to me.  I can at least say that I did upgrade to the Q10 last year – the Blackberry that has the physical keyboard, but also has a new faster operating system that relies much more on touch commands for everything but the actual typing.  This week, I received what I consider a gift from Blackberry, as I’m also a big radio fan.  While I listen to Internet radio and use digital music services, I also still really enjoy listening to over-the-air radio.  This week, my Blackberry Q10 received an upgrade to its operating system and, with that upgrade, the phone’s FM chip was activated.  Now, my ATT phone gets over-the-air radio – becoming the modern equivalent to the transistor radio – a radio in my pocket at all times.  Of course, being a lawyer, the whole question of activating FM chips in mobile phones brings up policy issues, as it has been in and out of many policy arguments over the last few years.

First, a qualification must be made for international readers of this blog.  The question of an active FM chip in a mobile phone is an issue in the US, but not in many other countries of the world, where FM reception on mobile phones has been standard for many years.  In the US, that has not been the case.  While the chips are built into most phones, they are not activated.  Some suggest that the chips are not activated because the carriers want to encourage data usage through the use of online audio, but the carriers simply say that there is no consumer demand for the activation of the feature.  No matter what the reason, the chip has not been activated in most US phones, and thus policy issues from time to time arise as to whether it’s activation should be mandated or encouraged by government action.

The question of activating the FM chip has come up in the context of a broadcast performance royalty.  As we wrote several years ago, there was a compromise proposal offered by broadcasters to accept an over-the-air performance royalty, but the amount of the royalty was tied in to the number of mobile phones that had activated FM chips.  The record labels balked at that proposal, as did the mobile carriers and phone manufacturers who did not want to be dragged into a dispute that had little to do with their businesses.

From time to time, the issue of mandating, or at least seeking government encouragement for the activation of the FM chip has come up, particularly in connection with discussions of EAS and emergency communications (see, for instance, our article here).  As broadcast radio still maintains near ubiquity across the country, and continues to be the most reliable source of news and information during emergencies when mobile networks can become congested or local cells are deactivated by local conditions, broadcasters have suggested that having an active FM chip is important to public safety.  Yet, carriers contend that mobile networks have become more reliable, and carriers and local officials also provide more direct to consumer alerts to consumers, on top of the general reluctance of Congress to legislate consumer electronics standards, any mandate seems unlikely.  Thus, activation of FM chips in mobile phones has come down to a marketplace issue, and Blackberry’s decision to activate their chip seems like one way to attract some attention to their platform – witness this article.

Blackberry is not alone.  The radio industry has banded together to negotiate a marketplace agreement, where the industry provides compensation to Sprint in exchange for the activation of the phones on its network.  The industry, led by Emmis Communications, has also introduced a new NextRadio app for Sprint phones (also on Virgin and Boost Mobile platforms) that allows radio stations to push all sorts of album and advertiser information to phones, with album art and other information that synchronizes with the radio programming.  The app gives radio a user interface as good or better than that enjoyed by many digital music services available on mobile platforms.  I’ve seen the app demonstrated at many broadcaster conventions, and it really is worth checking out.  See their webpage here which lists the phones available with active FM chips

Other phone companies have also talked about activating their FM chips.  For instance, certain phones using the Windows Media platform have said that they would have activated chips.  All of these activations demonstrate that the marketplace is likely to be what dictates the availability of FM radio on new platforms.  The mobile phone is but one place where questions of access will come up.  In the near term, the radio industry will also need to make sure to negotiate with car makers to keep radio’s place in the dashboard, as more and more digital competitors are reaching economic deals to put their services on the dash to more equally compete in what has been radio’s traditional almost exclusive domain.  We will write more about connected car issues in the future.

Now for the product review – the FM chip in the Blackberry Q10 works great.  I note that it was at first a little hard to find how to turn the radio on.  Once this week’s upgrade of the phone’s operating system was complete, I went searching for the radio which I had read would be available.  After going online for advice, I finally found a radio tab under the Music Icon that was already on the touchscreen. 

Once you get to the radio tab, with headphones or earbuds attached (they act as the FM antenna), the screen is populated with the frequencies of radio stations that are in your area.  Tap on the frequency, and the local station immediately starts playing.  Reception was very clean (though I am listening in downtown DC relatively near to most station’s transmitter sites – I have not had a chance to test it in more remote locations).

The most amazing thing to me was how quickly the radio changed stations.  You hit the frequency tab for a new station, and the new station immediately starts playing.  The change from one station to another is in less than the blink of an eye.  No buffering like on Internet radio.  Even on a car or tabletop radio, there is a few seconds where you have static or silence as the radio tunes to the new channel.  Here, the station change is instant.  It was so fast that sometimes I didn’t even realize that the station had indeed changed!

Of course, at this point, there is no rich experience on phone.  No RDS information appears to be imported to identify the station by anything more than the frequency.  And no NextRadio information to identify the artist is available, at least not yet.  And no AM – which I understand is at least somewhat due to an antenna issues.  But I now have FM radio on my mobile phone, so it makes one radio guy happy!