Mignon Clyburn at ASU

FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn says she has nothing against FM chips in smartphones. But speaking at the National Tribal Radio Summit in Phoenix, Clyburn said yesterday she still believes regulators shouldn’t force carriers to activate FM features. “This is one of those things where the marketplace and advocates for this in the community can be the driver of all this because if you, collectively, make it clear that these are the types of options you will gravitate to, then the market will follow,” she said.

Clyburn told the gathering that she wanted to be careful how far she publicly advocated for the inclusion of the FM function, but the former co-owner of the Charleston-based weekly the Coastal Times left little doubt where she comes down on the issue. “I’m always going to have a bias—and I’m on the record as saying that’s for radio and for those who love radio and whatever platform that can enhance—but it’s up to the public to make a demand and say these are options we want,” she said.

Some attendees at the two-day conference at Arizona State University said they think the Federal Communications Commission should do more to force wireless carriers to activate the FM chips, which are already in a majority of handsets. But Clyburn said such government mandate would assuredly get tied up in legal challenges, and while those inch forward in the courts, years will go by without radio in smartphones. A faster route to achieve such a goal, she said, is to continue the voluntary process already underway. “What I want is market differentiation, competition and more services and wider services—and I am a lover of radio,” Clyburn said.

During a brief question-and-answer session with a crowd of tribal radio advocates, one unidentified attendee pushed back at such a strategy, saying the carrier he relies on to cover the rural area where he lives and works doesn’t turn on the FM chip. “Sometimes the market fails and sometimes you need the government to step in,” he said, adding, “I am sure the cellphone industry would like to say the market is not failing on this, but from our point of view, I think it is.”

Clyburn said she is “still hopeful” a marketplace solution will prevail, pointing out after Sprint embraced FM three years ago, rival carriers AT&T and T-Mobile finally relented late last year. In recent weeks, holdout Verizon Wireless said it would also not take steps to prevent buyers of the Samsung S7 on its network from using the handset’s built-in FM capabilities. “It is all about the provider maintaining and growing their market share,” she acknowledged.