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Sprint to add FM radio to smartphones – too little, too late?

Tuned in to WTNGThe biggest radio news to come out of CES this week was Sprint’s announcement that it struck a deal to integrate FM radio tuners in some of its smartphones. Radio listening will be available through the forthcoming NextRadio tuner app on Android and Windows devices, which Sprint says will offer, “a wide range of interactive listener features not available today.”

For users there are several advantages to a real FM tuner compared to using a streaming radio app. Importantly, broadcast radio does not use any data bandwidth and won’t incur any additional charges no matter how much you listen. Also not all broadcast stations are available as live streams, and, especially when it comes to major league sports, not all programs are available as live streams. Finally, FM tuners are misers when it comes to battery consumption, especially compared to keeping a data connection active for an hour or more.

I used an HTC EVO that had an FM tuner for a few years. And while I only used the radio occasionally, every time I greatly appreciated its utility. I used it mostly while traveling so that I could tune in local stations without having to carry another radio.

I actually got a lot of use out of the EVO’s radio when I was in Argentina in 2011. My hosts–Americans spending a year abroad–did not have a radio at that time but wanted to listen to some local broadcasts. I had the cell radio turned off, since it wasn’t compatible with Argentine networks, but could connect it to speakers so we could enjoy Buenos Aires stations.

Despite my enthusiasm for FM tuners in smartphones, I don’t think this deal is such an enormous boon for the radio industry. Rather, I think it’s a matter of too little too late.

The radio lobby has been pushing for a few years to have radio tuners in all smartphones, but in this case they’ve succeeded only with the #3 wireless carriers, and not with all that carrier’s smartphones. A very notable exception to the deal is the iPhone, which has never had an FM tuner, despite past rumors. This is not a minor exception, given that the iPhone is still the most popular smartphone in the US.

There is no mention of HD Radio either. One might recall that at last year’s NAB the radio industry was all excited about a prototype smartphone with integrated HD radio. Nearly one year later that device is vaporware, and there’s no mention of HD radio as part of the Sprint deal. I would have been more impressed if the radio industry had been able to pull that off. But, that would also be much more expensive for Sprint.

In fact, this is a pretty cheap deal for Sprint, which can use all the publicity it can get, as the #3 carrier. FM radios are already integrated in a lot of smartphone models available outside the US. For instance, I recently got a Samsung Galaxy S3. The US version has no FM radio, but the EU version does. So it doesn’t seem like such a big deal for Sprint to ask Samsung to assemble a US version that has the radio included.

I have a hard time seeing an FM radio being the feature that drives the average consumer’s choice of carrier or smartphone. One might think that I am that sort of consumer for whom it would be important. Yet, none of my smartphone choices over the last five years have been driven by FM radio inclusion. Sure, I enjoyed the tuner in my HTV EVO. But day to day, other features, like 4G data and operating system features, have been much more pivotal. The FM radio is frosting, not the cake.

Because of this, I will be very surprised if this deal has any effect on the other carriers. I simply don’t see an incentive for AT&T and Verizon to jump on the FM tuner bandwagon; they won’t be fighting some tremendous erosion to Sprint over this feature. Even if they do find it advantageous to agree to take the smartphone versions with FM radios, I still don’t see that expanding the radio audience by any significant amount.

It’s a good thing that there will be FM radios in some Sprint smartphones. It’s just too little, about four years too late.

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