And the NAB wants this mandate so badly, it's finally offered to pay performance royalties to recording companies and artists in return for the music industry's support (and successful passage) of radio-chip legislation.
Sound like a win-win?
The game plan is meeting significant resistance from the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) and the wireless industry trade group CTIA (formerly the Cellular Telephone Industries Association).
DON'T TREAD ON WE: Like other businesses, the consumer electronics and wireless industries don't appreciate a government dictating features or standards - except when the legislation meets a favored goal. Like forcing the nation's conversion to digital TV.
In the 1990s, the CEA fought unsuccessfully against the mandatory inclusion of two chips now found in all televisions. One brought closed captioning - a boon for the deaf, for foreign language speakers and for folks trying to follow a ballgame in a noisy bar.
Six years later, in 1996, a Clinton-era Congress pushed through inclusion of the so-called V-chip in all new TVs so parents could control their kids' viewing. By all reports, that feature is seldom used.
So what say these electronics industries about requiring an FM tuner chip in all phones?
"It's a bit absurd," declared CEA president Gary Shapiro. It's "as if a century ago the horse and buggy makers got Congress to require that every car be led by a horse . . . If consumers want radios in phones - which very few apparently do, since it's not been a popular feature when offered - then they'll ask for them."
Added CTIA vice president Joe Carpenter, "The market has evolved in a different way than I think the broadcasters would like it to, to an Internet-based delivery mechanism."
He noted that "competition for space on the circuit board on the device is fierce. I don't think that the broadcasters or public policy makers ought to be dictating the form and function of these devices to that degree."
FOLLOW THE MONEY: Just 25 cents today buys a radio chip for a mobile phone. Just such a tuner is already hiding inside "about 35 percent of U.S. cellphones," according to Jeff Smulyan, CEO of Emmis Communications, which owns 25 radio stations.
But U.S. mobile service providers often demand that their phone suppliers deactivate the circuit. Why? When customers are listening to FM radio, they're not using up their mobile phone minutes and not buying Internet radio "apps" and music downloads.
However, broadcasters could potentially save beaucoup bucks (streaming fees, extra royalties) if they could get people currently listening to Internet streaming versions of their stations (on a mobile phone or computer) to tune to the broadcast FM version. And they'd be operating in a much less competitive environment.
On a Motorola-made, Verizon-sold Droid X - one smart phone that does have a usable FM chip - tapping the activate icon opens a listener to maybe 30 local station choices.
On an Apple/AT&T iPhone, using an Internet radio app like Tuner, a music buff is just as likely to tune in a station from Quebec; Kingston, Jamaica; or Cape Town, South Africa. The options loom in the hundreds, even thousands.
Assuming successful passage of legislation to require FM tuner chips in all mobile phones, U.S. radio stations would begin to pony up performance royalties equal to 1 percent of their annual net revenue, or about $100 million total nationwide.
This isn't nearly as good a deal as the one the music industry has been trying to get through the Performance Rights Act, which would create new royalty rules netting as much as $2 billion annually for artists and labels.
But the NAB's been fighting this legislation hard, and it's yet to come up for a full congressional vote. So the music industry's willing to compromise.
Plus, musicFirst spokesman Martin Machowsky noted that another $70 million to $100 million in annual performance royalty payments from overseas terrestrial stations would also be dropped into the needy music industry's pot. That money is now being withheld, due to the lack of reciprocity in royalty collection here.
IT'S ALL ABOUT SECURITY: The Warning, Alert and Response Network Act implemented by the Federal Communications Commission in 2008 set up a framework for cellphone service providers to blast emergency messages to all subscribers.
The mobile industry's response was a text-based system of 90 characters, enough to tell you "seek higher ground" or "tune to a local radio station." And even that limited solution has yet to be deployed.
There's another fly in this ointment. I've suffered with mobile services that fail to deliver text messages and drop calls in merely calm but crowded settings - say at 30th Street train station, or during intermission at a Mann Center concert. So it's difficult to imagine such a system functioning in a true emergency, when everyone is reaching for the phone.
Radio, bless it's antiquated heart, blasts its signals almost everywhere at any time, even during hurricanes and Martian invasions. And if one antenna tower and station goes down, dozens of others are standing by, ready to deliver the time, temp and bad news.
So Congress, do your part. Put a radio chip in my phone, will ya?
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