18 August 2010

Should Congress mandate FM receivers in all handheld devices?

This item over at Ars Technica is an interesting discussion and commentary around the proposed legislation that would require all handheld devices to contain FM receivers. This has been done before with UHF television, but in that case it was to encourage the development of the then new TV band. In this case, it is to support an existing technology either toward the end of its life (if you follow TechDirt) or at least one that is finding a new niche. As Ars points out, FM still has a wide listenership, but it is suffering from a thousand cuts, from MP3s to HD-Radio to the economic downturn. It is also true that adding FM may not be very costly: chips are cheap and, in fact, the FM functionality may be a software feature rather than a hardware one (depending on the nature of the device).

To me, the central question is: Is this an appropriate role for government? The argument for government mandates in the UHF case was fairly clear, as there was a first-mover (aka chicken-and-egg) problem that had to be solved. To me, the arguments for government mandates in this case are much less clear. Handheld devices could have included FM radios if consumers had demanded them (or if there was a clear business model for including them). Except for some MP3 players, FM radios do not appear to be an important adjunct to many handheld devices, so what is the public interest rationale for government action?

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