The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is mulling to make it mandatory for mobile phones to have the necessary hardware and software for providing FM radio services. 

FM broadcasting uses frequency modulation (FM) to transmit high-fidelity (or high-quality) sound over broadcast radios. FM broadcast band usually falls in the 87.5 MHz to 108.5 MHz spectrum band, much lower than the frequency bands used for 3G, 4G and 5G mobile services. Owing to the high bandwidth and low frequency of FM radio services, it is still able to provide connectivity in areas or geographies that mobile networks might be unable to reach. 

Even as mobile connectivity and high speed broadband become ubiquitous in this new age of telephony, the radio continues to be a device that connects the masses. Initially for listening to radio broadcasts, standalone radios were used. With the advancements of technology, FM radio receivers were integrated with mobile handsets, doing away with the need of a separate device entirely. TRAI, has however indicated that stakeholders have communicated to the regulator that with the introduction of 4G handsets, device manufacturers and operating systems (iOS and Android) are turning FM tuners off, possibly to promote their paid streaming services.”

Important during disasters

FM radios not only provide cheap audio entertainment and news to some of the most marginalised sections of the society. TRAI also noted that in big scale natural disasters such as floods, earthquakes and tsunamis, where mobile services might not be fully functional, FM radios also serve as an important mode of communication for right information and resources for people. 

In which case, the original equipment manufacturer’s (OEM) decision to remove FM radio receivers from the modern 4G handsets could be detrimental to public safety, especially as mobile handsets are the most widely used modes of communication . Radio services are also free of cost to the user and can be accessed without subscription to any mobile or data plan. 

Non-availability of antenna

Exploring the matter independently, TRAI also found that until 2018-19 quite a few mobile handsets included an FM radio app. Such an FM radio app was either provided by the manufacturing OEM or available for download. “However such apps are not available on the Google Play Store or the Apple App Store in the last 3-4 years,” said TRAI. 

The issue was discussed with Indian Cellular and Electronics Association (ICEA). On the issue of allowing the FM radio in mobile handset, ICEA submitted that the issue has arisen due to non-availability of antenna for FM spectrum (88 MHz to 108 MHz) in mobile handsets. To fulfil the same, quite-a few handsets depended upon the wire connecting the earphone with handset through 3.5 mm audio jack. ICEA argues that there are a multitude of hardware and software issues causing modern smartphone handsets to be unable to FM radio services. 

Threat to monopoly

TRAI has cited regulations in countries such as the UK which have made it compulsory for modern smartphones to have radio receivers to potentially explore a similar proposal for smartphones sold in India as well.

Device makers and operating systems likely do not want to provide radio services to maintain their own monopoly apps such as music streaming or messaging applications that use mobile broadband services. TRAI’s diktat on the matter could thus be to the detriment of the device and OS ecosystem