FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, citing public safety concerns, has taken the unusual step of releasing a statement urging Apple to activate the FM radio chips already present in iPhone devices.

In today’s statement, Chairman Pai explained that “[w]hen wireless networks go down during a natural disaster, smartphones with activated FM chips can allow Americans to get vital access to life-saving information.”  He went on to note that “Apple is the one major phone manufacturer that has resisted” activating FM chips.  He expressed hope that “the company will reconsider its position, given the devastation wrought by Hurricanes Harvey, Irma, and Maria” and quoted a newspaper editorial: “Do the right thing, Mr. Cook. Flip the switch. Lives depend on it.”

Chairman Pai’s support for activation of FM chips in cell phones is nothing new.  For example, in his remarks at the 2016 Radio Show, Chairman Pai committed to “continu[ing] to urge the wireless industry to activate FM chips in smartphones.”  Earlier this year, Chairman Pai quipped that “It seems odd that every day we hear about a new smartphone app that lets you do something innovative, yet these modern-day mobile miracles don’t enable a key function offered by a 1982 Sony Walkman.”

Nevertheless, Chairman Pai has always opposed a government mandate requiring activation of FM chips, stating that “it’s best to sort this issue out in the marketplace.”

While today’s statement does not depart from Chairman Pai’s philosophy of voluntary activation, issuing a statement that calls on a specific manufacturer to adopt a “voluntary” policy is rather extraordinary and could foreshadow further use by Chairman Pai of the bully pulpit to correct what he views as market inefficiencies without imposing additional regulation.

The timing of today’s statement is also noteworthy, as it comes shortly after the release of the iPhone 8 and just ahead of the release of the iPhone X.

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