Congress Ponders Smartphone Chip Mandates

Published October 22, 2010

The broadcasting industry is asking Congress not only to mandate installation of FM receivers in all new smartphones but require TV chips in those handheld devices as well.

The National Association of Broadcasters, the major trade group representing the television and radio industries, is calling for the FM receivers mandate in return for the group’s acceptance of the Performance Rights Act, a proposed law requiring radio broadcasters to pay performance royalties to recording artists. Currently, only copyright holders receive royalties.

The call for mandating TV chips comes from TVNewsCheck, a broadcasting business Web site.

“Let’s put a mobile DTV receiver in the pocket of every American so that they can tune into their favorite broadcast show anytime, anywhere—in the store, on the bus, at the dentist,” a recent editorial stated. “How do we do it? Convince Congress to mandate DTV tuners in all new cell phones.”

‘No Public Interest Served’
The call for a chip mandate is more of a trial balloon than anything likely to come to fruition, says Steve Titch, a telecom policy analyst at the Reason Foundation in Los Angeles.

“Broadcasters want to continue to protect their revenue streams, so they want to make a smartphone like a portable television,” Titch said.

Titch added, “It’s not right for one industry group to try to force another industry group to do something to serve [the first group’s] interest. There’s no public interest served.”

‘Just Plain Wrong’
Protecting their turf is one thing, but seeking a mandate is something else, says Eric Loyd, president of Bitnetix Inc., a technology consulting firm.

“The NAB is doing all it can to survive in a tough technological world,” said Loyd. “I get that. They want DTV and/or FM receivers in every cell phone. I get that. It’s hard to get people to carry around 46-inch LCD TVs, and radios are fast becoming something used only while commuting to/from work for a lot of people.

“But forcing an extra radio receiver into my device in my pocket is just plain wrong,” he added. “Forcing me to have one on my cell phone is just the same as mandating that all new homes built after 2010 will have built-in flat-screen televisions.”

Morover, the chips alone wouldn’t make such a service viable, says John Donovan, president of Telecom Financial LLC, a firm that provides advisory services to cell tower owners and lessees.

“I’d like to ask the broadcasters how they plan on implementing this,” Donovan said. “The wireless carriers are already scrambling to upgrade their networks, which were originally built for voice, to handle the explosion in data traffic that everyone expects to continue for the foreseeable future. If they do this, it will create further capacity strains on networks.”

‘Attempt to Stay Relevant’
David Eads, founder and CEO of Mobile Strategy Partners LLC, a consultant to the mobile communication industry, foresees additional problems with a TV chip mandate.

“The problem with the federal government mandating TV and radio chips in these phones is that they’ll drive up the cost of the devices and will provide little benefit to the consumer,” Eads said.

“It appears to be an industry attempt to stay relevant in a rapidly changing market,” he continued. “For example, smartphone users have had music players on their phones since the first iPhone. It arguably was the killer app that created the smartphone category. Users can listen to the music they like and they choose whatever songs, commercials, and chatter happens to be playing on the radio.”

Eads added: “Smartphone apps like Pandora and NPR already provide radio-like experiences on the phone with additional features unavailable in a simple radio. Pandora understands your listening habits and your likes, and [it] tailors music to your unique tastes with a few banner ads and occasional commercials. NPR provides live feeds of many on-air stations around the country as well as podcast-like stories with text and graphics. In my opinion, NPR is the gold standard of this new converged media where audio/video, text, graphics, social media, and communications all come together.”

Titch said a Congressional mandate isn’t needed anyway if there really is a viable market for handheld device with additional chips. 

Phil Britt ([email protected]) writes from South Holland, Illinois.

On the Internet:

“Think About It: 300M Mobile DTV Receivers,” Harry A. Jessell,