Apple would like to remind the FCC that it can’t activate imaginary FM radios that iPhones don’t have

Apple responded today to FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, who issued a statement that “urged” Apple to activate the FM chips that he claimed are in iPhones in the name of public safety. The recent hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria were the hook for the reasoning. The only problem? Apple hasn’t even included FM radio chips in iPhones since the iPhone 6s.

That’s right, Pai called on Apple to activate radios that don’t even exist.

As John Gruber astutely points out, the statement has the stink of trying to shift blame or attention off of the FCC’s own response and readiness issues. Pai has been banging the drum for months now and it’s been a talking point of the NAB for years. When ostensibly asked for comment by Bloomberg, National Association of Broadcasters spokesman Dennis Wharton said “The notion that Apple or anyone else would block this type of information is something that we find fairly troubling.”

Again, the radios do not exist in iPhones and haven’t for over a year now. It’s important to note here that the FCC must test all radio devices thoroughly before they are eligible for sale in the US. It is very likely that the FCC already knew that the FM radio was not present in new iPhones. Update: This testing typically happens at accredited third-party laboratories like UL in California with guidelines which are set by the Office of Engineering and Technology within the FCC, but the point stands. 

It’s also worth noting that there is no regulation that says any phone manufacturer must do this — which is why there is a shaming campaign going on involving the Chairman of the FCC and a radio broadcasting organization to get Apple to enable radios that it does not possess so that more devices can receive radio.

I went and asked Apple about it and they said, very clearly, that iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 do not have FM radio chips in them at all. Here’s the statement.

Apple cares deeply about the safety of our users, especially during times of crisis and that’s why we have engineered modern safety solutions into our products. Users can dial emergency services and access Medical ID card information directly from the Lock Screen, and we enable government emergency notifications, ranging from Weather Advisories to AMBER alerts. iPhone 7 and iPhone 8 models do not have FM radio chips in them nor do they have antennas designed to support FM signals, so it is not possible to enable FM reception in these products.

I understand that’s true of the iPhone X as well, by the way.

The response from Apple came in earlier today but I still had some questions about this so I did some poking around. The chips that Apple uses for its radio comms are actually fairly easy to identify once you’ve opened the case. That has made it easy for those who do teardowns to figure out what parts from Intel or Broadcom or whoever Apple is using in iPhone 8. Running purely off of that information it could be easy to assume that a certain part number is identical to other parts that are used in phones like the Samsung Galaxy S8.

But that’s not true at all in the case of Apple. Even if a part seems to be the spitting image, for instance, of a Broadcom BCM4357, it is assuredly not. Apple does not buy off the shelf parts and never has. It works closely with manufacturers to get the exact specifications it needs based on the capabilities it wants. Even though parts may appear very, very similar to those used in other phones, they are usually not.

The FM block is simply not there in current iPhone radio chips. It may look the same but it’s not on the chip at all. Broadcom would need to re-spin the chip to add the stuff Apple would need back in. They’d also need, of course, to connect it up (which it never was even in the older phones) and build in an antenna and change its WiFi chip and add back in a headphone jack to use the headphones as an antenna.

Which brings us to a final point: Apple has actually not had workable FM radios in iPhones in a very, very long time. Much further back than the iPhone 7. Even when the FM modules were included in the chip, they were not connected, had no antennas and no support was built in to other radio components. Basically, Apple can’t switch on the FM radio in the iPhone 7, iPhone 8 and iPhone X because they don’t exist. And it can’t switch on many older FM radio chips because the iPhone’s hardware simply does not support it.

We’ve reached out to the FCC to see if they’re aware of any of this. No response yet.

Update: Since I published this, some folks have asked me how far back you’d have to go to find an iPhone that was capable of being updated via software and not a hardware change to support FM broadcast and receiving. I did some digging on it and the answer is as I suspected: no iPhone models ever have had the FM module actually physically hooked up and able to be turned on. Even if the chips were there, they were not functional and could not be enabled by software.

I also want to clarify something that I didn’t make crystal in the original piece. I strongly believe that if Apple has the ability to do a software update that could save lives it should do that update. There is little to no reason that it could not or should not expend some of its vast resources to enhance the safety and security of customers in their daily lives as well as during disasters like the recent hurricanes. Period.

However, if the hardware installed in the phones is incapable of being ‘enabled’ via software, then this is not an option. At this point, it becomes a matter of whether companies that make smartphones can be forced to include FM functionality on future devices, something the NAB tried to sleight-of-hand into the conversation in a response to Apple today.

It’s also worth noting that the NAB essentially accused Apple of lying to the government by saying that the chip is in the iPhone 7. So we’ll see how that plays out.