How phone companies redline cell phone customers into digital ghettos

This op-ed was originally published in The Hill

Why can’t most inexpensive cell phones receive life-saving emergency weather alerts?

Why, unlike people in the rest of the world, can’t Americans listen to emergency information broadcasts on their cell phones?

These are not accidents or unanticipated consequences. These are the results of deliberate decisions that have been made on the design, regulation and operation of the U.S. cell phone system.

Nearly a decade ago, Rep. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), who now chairs the House Energy & Commerce Committee, anticipated the need to expand access to emergency information.

“With nearly 200 million Americans carrying cell phones and other wireless devices it seems only natural to also look to the wireless industry to help communicate in times of emergencies,” he said, citing U.S. policy “to have an effective, reliable, integrated, flexible, and comprehensive system to alert and warn the American people. What we must strive for is an emergency system that leaves no one behind.”

The good news is that the system can be fixed, quickly. On June 18 the Federal Communications Commission will consider a proposal to comprehensively restructure and modernize the Lifeline program. Based on a series of meetings with high level participants from government, industry and academia, the USC Annenberg Center for Communication Leadership & Policy is urging the FCC to ensure that cell phone carriers receiving subsidies through the FCC’s Lifeline program provide affordable mobile phones equipped with emergency services for all Americans.

This is important for several reasons.

When a tornado, earthquake, hurricane or other emergency hits the United States, all broadcasters are required to send warnings that can be received by every radio and television set in the affected area. By contrast, federal rules governing emergency life-saving alerts sent to mobile phones make these alerts optional – at the discretion of the phone company.

So phone companies can and do send emergency alerts to expensive smart phones. But they are not required to send life-saving information to Americans with inexpensive cell phones – and some phone companies do not. Unlike decades-old federal requirements for broadcasters to serve the public in emergencies, the federal rules for mobile phones were written to allow phone companies to withhold life-saving information from their customers.

As a result, millions of Americans with low-cost cell phones and cell phone plans are in danger because they have been redlined into unsafe digital ghettoes, their telephones excluded by their phone company from receiving critical emergency information.

But that is not the full extent of the problem.

Even the most expensive smart phones are deliberately engineered to prevent Americans from receiving life-saving information during emergencies.

Here’s how: Almost all smart phones sold in the United States come equipped with an FM radio receiver. Indeed, in much of Asia and Africa, millions of people listen to broadcast radio on their mobile phones.

But unlike phones in Asia and Africa, cell phones in the U.S. are sold with their FM receivers disabled by the manufacturer – yes, deliberately turned off – preventing Americans from using their telephones’ radio receivers. Yes, you can listen to some radio stations, but only if you use your cell phone provider’s data plan, charging you by the minute. The FM receiver in your phone, if you can use it, would let you listen for free – just as people do in the rest of the world.

Why is this such a vital issue during emergencies?

Because, as the head of the Federal Emergency Management Administration pointed out, during emergencies the cell phone network is overwhelmed – if indeed towers are still standing at all. As a result, FEMA wants all Americans to have access to over-the-air broadcast radio during emergencies.

But with your cell phone’s radio receiver disabled by the manufacturer, that means you cannot receive vital life-saving information during emergencies on your mobile phone.

When told of this, people are astonished. The CEO of a Fortune 50 company was incredulous, asking me how this could have happened in America.

But it has happened in America. That is the bad news. The good news is that it can be changed.

The Federal Communications Commission can and should take action to remedy this failing when it takes up Chairman Tom Wheeler’s proposal to modernize the Lifeline program. We urge the FCC to change the rules, a change which will force an end to digital redlining in order to allow all Americans to have access to life-saving information before and during emergencies.

Who can be against that?