A battery-powered FM radio, as seen in the image, can be used to gather vital safety news when cell phone towers are no longer functioning.
Before the advent of smartphones, radio communication was the most popular and the most resilient. Today, one would expect that smartphones are more resilient than they were before.
However, this is not the case; in fact, most of America's smartphone manufacturers have reversed the gains made in phone technology. Less than 40% of the Americans can access an FM radio using their smartphones.
In case of an emergency, people cannot receive vital information required to survive. It was evident in the last few years when cellular networks knocked out by storms led to a serious humanitarian crisis. People using iPhone, one of the most popular smartphones in America could not access radio signals.
According to the FCC, FM signals are the last to be knocked out in case of a storm. If you have the FM station enabled on your phone, you can have the important information required to save you from an emergency. Apple seems to be holding out on this important feature.
In fact, in the most recent models, iPhone 8 and X, the FM chip is not only disabled but non-existent altogether. This means, the only way to access information in an emergency is through emergency calls, which requires cellular network, which is usually the first to be knocked out even in the slightest of disturbance.
The chair of FCC, Ajit Pai, says that if Apple and the other providers who have switched off the FM function switched it on, many lives could be saved. He believes that smartphone makers have a moral duty to do the right thing. He called on Apple to switch the FM option.
However, most smartphone manufacturers will be adamant to add the function, since FM directly competes with their products. For example, to access music on Apple devices, you need iTunes, which will be obsolete if a person can listen to a radio. ITunes offers services otherwise possible via FM radio and it will require significant pressure to make them yield.
Also, internet service providers such as Verizon may lobby against such a move. Switching FM will significantly affect their business in terms of cellular data consumed to download songs and podcasts.
So, whether hurricane Maria or Harvey put millions in danger, the commercial sense may outweigh the human sense. As witnessed recently, Puerto Rico was on its knees after all cellular signal broadcasts crumbled. The only hope was to communicate messages through radio hoping against hope that people have radios to access the information.
On the overall, it is a moral duty that smartphone makers ought to consider, but as long as they are not willing to adopt, as signaled by Apple, it will be a long shot. Samsung is leading the companies offering FM radio to customers followed by other providers. However, the incentive to do otherwise is real and unless the situation is fixed, humanitarian crises might turn even more chaotic as more people adopt FM-less phones.