A Seemingly Simple Question

The job of the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, where I teach, is to produce thoughtful public and nonprofit managers—people who can deal with the increasing complexities of public and regulatory policy. That requires spending a good deal of time analyzing what rules government should and should not enact.

Rulemaking is an especially important task of the various agencies set up to regulate highly technical industries like telecommunications. Too little regulation and the strong will take advantage of the weak; too much, and it can stifle competitiveness. In highly specialized, technical areas, corporate interests can—and do—lobby in relative secrecy for sweetheart deals, or—even worse—to prevent passage of regulations that would benefit the general public.

Case in point: mobile phones and broadcast radio.

Around the world, over 1.1 billion phones contain chips that allow them to receive radio broadcasts. Although it is estimated that 33% of phones here in the U.S. have those same chips (which cost approximately 30 cents each), in our phones they’ve been turned off. So people living elsewhere can and do listen to radio on their cell phones, but we Americans can’t.

That leads to two questions: why not, and why does it matter?

Cell phone users in the U.S. can’t choose to have radio on our phones because when the ability to download first threatened the music industry’s business model, the carriers—AT&T, Verizon, etc.—thought including broadcast radio would undermine their ability to sell music packages. With the passage of time, and development of free services like Pandora, it became obvious that there wasn’t going to be a market for such sales, but carriers continue to block radio from cellphones.

That refusal mystifies me. When you download news or music to your Blackberry or IPhone, you are using a lot of bandwidth, and bandwidth costs carriers a lot of money. (Granted, they pass along the cost to users when they can.) Turning on that 30 cent chip would free up badly needed bandwidth and save carriers money. As an observer with—admittedly—a very minimal understanding of the industry, I find their continued resistance to offering radio puzzling.

If the issue was just that carriers are making a seemingly dumb business decision, it wouldn’t make much difference to most of us. (I’m certainly not going to lose sleep over AT&T’s profit margins!) The reason this matters to the rest of us is that it significantly affects public safety.

When natural disasters occur—think Joplin, Missouri—the government needs to be able to issue immediate alerts, and those alerts need to reach the widest possible audience in the shortest possible time. It is literally a matter of life and death. In 2006, the federal government passed the Warn Act, requiring wireless providers to develop the capacity to issue those emergency alerts. Thus far, the industry has done very little to build the widespread text-messaging system that it is developing to satisfy the Act.

Adding radio to cell phones would allow government to use the existing emergency broadcast system, which has proven much more reliable than cell phone towers. (When electricity goes, so does the cell system.) Furthermore, texting may get the attention of young people, but many of the older Americans most vulnerable to natural disasters are unlikely to check regularly for text messages.

The lack of an emergency notification system is a problem government can solve tomorrow by passing a simple regulation requiring carriers to use that 30 cent chip. Experts insist that there are no technical impediments, and costs would be far less than building out a text-based notification system.

Why doesn’t the government require this? What am I missing?

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