Beware Broadcasters' Post-Sandy Opportunism

One month ago today, those of us in NYC and the surrounding area were hunkering down and riding out a storm named Sandy. As conditions worsened and disruptions in communications technologies multiplied, people did something they don’t often do en masse anymore: they turned to radio to find out what was going on.
A few radio stations did provide an informational and emotional lifeline, demonstrating that the medium still has an important role to play in our modern media environment. The ubiquity of broadcasting, coupled with the ease of access to it (no device necessary save for a cheap receiver, no contracts, no terms of service) made radio the go-to medium after almost everything else stopped working.
Broadcasters are trumpeting this in the context of a policy initiative they’d desperately like to see: a government mandate for radio reception in mobile phones. With the benefit of storm experience, I can better understand the rationale behind this notion. But still can’t bring myself to support the idea, for two primary reasons.
The first involves the lionization of smartphones. Yes, they can do many different things, and that is pretty neat. But the navigation of life does not occur through a single piece of technology. Smartphones are complicated devices, with many potential points of failure. A standard AM/FM radio receiver, on the other hand, is not. You can’t find cheap, disposable batteries sold in bulk for a smartphone.
While it is true that many people don’t buy radios anymore – they buy devices that happen to have radios in them – it doesn’t obviate the need or desire for a stand-alone receiver. Also note that any receiver mandate for smartphones only covers FM: the electrically-noisy environment inside such devices makes AM reception questionable at best.
While many smartphones already have the chipset in them for FM reception, it’s a bit more complicated than installing an app to access this functionality. The chip must be wired to the “antenna” (i.e., the connection for your headphones or earbuds, without which a radio app won’t work) and the phone’s firmware must be programmed/updated to utilize the functionality. It’s this “hidden cost” which is at the center of the consumer electronics industry’s opposition to a radio reception mandate.
But my second concern is the larger one: a Sandy-hyped mandate for FM compatibility might be used as a stalking horse to impose HD Radio reception technology in phones. Heaven knows the technology could use the boost: iBiquity Digital Corporation recently announced that the number of HD Radios sold in the United States finally cracked the 10 million mark – reaching a 1% penetration rate a full 10 years after the technology was first introduced. The increase is wholly due to the automotive market, where some manufacturers have added HD functionality to their in-dash entertainment systems.
The rub is that while more people may now have access to HD programming, a significant segment of them didn’t actively seek it out – it came with the car, in which they might not even really use the radio much to begin with. The same situation would exist with smartphones: the installed receiver base might skyrocket, but that’s no guarantee that listenership would. (No HD signal in and of itself has made a blip in the Arbitron ratings yet.)
Considering the general ignorance of policymakers (especially Congress) regarding how communications technologies actually work, it’s an expensive and convoluted (but crafty way) of using “market incentives” to get broadcasters to adopt HD. The FCC made its deployment optional precisely because the technology is proprietary.
Whereas adding analog FM reception functionality to a smartphone represents a pennies-per-unit cost, the chipset and software necessary for HD reception resultingly costs much more.
In this instance, a mandate effectively represents a tax that enriches a proprietary business model. Imagine the outcry if the government mandated the use of Windows over Apple (or vice versa) in an everyday device.
Once a mandate for analog FM is established, the political hurdle for an HD mandate is much lower, because ignorant policymakers don’t understand the difference between analog and digital radio and subscribe to the popular fallacy that digital always equals “better.”
It’s still quite likely that the political and economic recalcitrance of the consumer electronics industry will carry the day, aided by modern America’s inability to remember much of anything outside of the recent past. The sad thing is, such disaster opportunism is likely to become more frequent as climate change becomes more severe.