FM chips in cell phones

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.
Continue Reading Activating the FM Chip in Mobile Phones – As Blackberry Steps Up, a Policy and Product Review

There has been much focus on emergency communications recently, with the East Coast earthquake re-igniting the debate over FM-enabled mobile phones, and with Hurricane Irene forcing stations to gear up for emergency coverage in the coming days.  But even without these unusual events, the emergency communications world has been much in the news, given the current requirement for broadcast stations to be ready for the new Common Alerting Protocol ("CAP"), an Internet-based alerting system, by the end of September, and with the first-ever test of the National EAS system scheduled for November.  The CAP conversion date has recently been the subject of debate in a number of FCC filings – and there seems like a good chance that the September 30 deadline will be delayed – if for no other reason than the fact that the FCC has yet to adopt final rules for the equipment required for such compliance.  The National Test, however, should go on as scheduled.  More on all of these subjects below.

First, the coming hurricane should prompt stations to be ready for potential emergency operations.  The FCC in the past has publicized its Disaster Information Reporting System (DIRS).  Stations can voluntarily register with DIRS to give the FCC a contact person to assess damage after the storm, and to notify the FCC of the need for any aide that the Commission might be able to provide.  During the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, I was personally involved in discussions with FCC personnel who coordinated with other government agencies to get clearance for diesel tanker trucks to gain access to restricted area to deliver fuel to a client’s radio station that was still operational (on generator power) providing emergency information to Mississippi’s Gulf Coast. The FCC personnel can be of great assistance in such situations, so DIRS registrations may be worth considering.  The FCC’s website also provides helpful information about planning for disaster recovery  and about hurricanes specifically.  FCC emergency contact information is also on their site.


Continue Reading Hurricanes and Earthquakes – Emergency Communications In the Spotlight With CAP Conversion and National EAS Test Coming Soon (Though, For CAP, Maybe Not As Soon As We Thought)

The NAB Radio Board today voted to adopt a Terms Sheet to offer to the musicFirst Coalition which, if agreed to by musicFirst and adopted by Congress, will settle the contentious issue of whether to impose a sound recording performance royalty (the "performance tax") on over-the-air broadcasters.  If adopted, that will mean that broadcasters in the United States, for the first time, will pay a royalty to artists and record labels, in addition to the royalties paid to ASCAP, BMI and SESAC that go to the composers of the music.  What does the Term Sheet provide, and what will this mean for broadcasters, webcasters and others who pay music royalties?

The Term Sheet sets out a number of points, including the following:

  • A 1% of gross revenue sound recording royalty to be paid to SoundExchange
  • A phase-in period for the 1% royalty, that will be tied to the number of mobile phones that contain an FM chip.  A royalty of one-quarter of one percent would take effect immediately upon the effective date of the legislation adopting it.  The royalty would rise in proportion to the number of mobile phones with enabled FM chips.  Once the percentage of phones with FM chips reached 75%, the full royalty would take effect.
  • The 1% royalty could only be changed by Congressional action.
  • The royalty would be lower for noncommercial stations and stations with less than $1.25 million in revenue – from a flat $5000 for stations making between $500,000 and $1.25 million in revenue down to $100 for those making less than $50,000 per year.
  • Broadcasters would also get a reduction in their streaming rates – but only when FM chips in mobile phones exceed 50% penetration.  The reduction would be tied to the rates paid by "pureplay webcasters" (see our summary of the Pureplay webcasters deal here), but would be set at a level significantly higher than pureplay webcasters, rising from $.001775 in 2011 (if FM chips were quickly deployed) to $.0021575.
  • Future streaming royalties would not be set by the Copyright Royalty Board but by a legislatively ordered rate court – presumably a US District Court similar to that which hears royalty disputes for ASCAP and BMI.
  • An acknowledgment by AFTRA that broadcasters can stream their signal on the Internet in their entirety – apparently agreeing to relieve broadcasters from any liability for the additional amounts due to union artists when commercials featuring union talent are streamed
  • An agreement that broadcasters can directly license music from artists and reduce their  liability for the new royalty by the percentage of music that the broadcasters is able to directly license
  • Agreements to "fix" issues in Sections 112 and 114 of the Copyright Act in making the provisions of these laws regarding ephemeral copies and the performance complement consistent with the waivers that major record labels gave to broadcasters when the NAB reached its settlement with SoundExchange on streaming royalties last year.  See our post here on the provisions of those waivers.
  • musicFirst would need to acknowledge the promotional effect of radio in promoting new music, and would need to work with radio in attempting to secure legislation mandating the FM chip in mobile phones.

[Clarification – 10/26/2010 – Upon a close reading of the Terms Sheet, it looks like the phase in of the 1% royalty and the delay in the streaming discount only kick in if Congress does not mandate active FM chips in cell phones.  If the mandate is enacted, then the full 1% royalty and streaming discount is effective immediately. Given the opposition of much of the wireless industry to a mandated FM chip, this may represent a recognition that the legislation requiring the active FM chip will not be enacted in the near future]

What does this all mean?


Continue Reading NAB Radio Board Adopts Proposal for Settlement of Performance Tax Issue – Where Do We Go From Here?

The debate over the proposed performance royalty (or "performance tax") on over-the-air radio is once again front page news in all of the broadcast trade press, as radio executives who make up the NAB Radio Board reportedly are making their way to Washington, DC to decide on whether to pursue a settlement with those seeking to impose the royalty.  What’s on the table?  Reportedly a very low (perhaps 1% of revenue as reported in some of the trades) royalty for terrestrial radio, a royalty set in legislation for at least a several year period.  In exchange, broadcasters would get a break on streaming royalties and a push towards getting working FM chips into cell phones – a potentially big audience boost for radio operators.  But from all we have heard, this is not, by any means, a done deal.  What will happen?

We wrote just a few weeks ago about a proposed settlement and why it might or might not be a good idea, and received many comments on our post.  As was clear from the comments, many are not sure why a settlement of any sort makes sense at this point, when the NAB has so far bottled up the royalty in Congress, and where the next Congress is, at least in the eyes of many, going to be far more Republican and, in some people’s eyes, a lot less likely to impose the royalty.  Proponents of a settlement respond that the royalty is not necessarily a partisan issue, with Republicans such as Senator Hatch of Utah, Congressman Issa of California, and many members of the Tennessee delegation taking strong positions in favor of the royalty.  So, just because there is a change in Congress (if it in fact occurs) does not necessarily mean that the current Performance Rights Act or some other version of the royalty proposal would be dead.  Moreover, as we wrote in our recent post, there still is the remainder of the current Congress to get through, including the "lame duck" session after the election, when Congressmen who may no longer have jobs will be voting on much legislation, including many big budget bills in which a performance royalty rider can get hidden. 


Continue Reading NAB Board Comes to DC to Discuss Radio Performance Royalties – Is There a Deal in the Works?