Free Radio On My Phone

If you have owned Android phones, there’s a reasonable chance that as the kind of person who reads Hackaday you will at some time have rooted one of them, and even applied a new community ROM to it. When you booted the phone into its new environment it’s not impossible you would have been surprised to find your phone now sported an FM radio. How had the ROM seemingly delivered a hardware upgrade?

It’s something your cellphone carrier would probably prefer not to talk about, a significant number of phones have the required hardware to receive FM radio, but lack the software to enable it. The carriers would prefer you to pay for their data to stream your entertainment rather than listen to it for free through a broadcaster. If you are someone capable of upgrading a ROM you can fix that, but every other phone owner is left holding a device they own, but seemingly don’t own.

Across North America there is a group campaigning to do something about this situation. Free Radio On My Phone and their Canadian sister organization are lobbying the phone companies and manufacturers to make the FM radio available, and in the USA at least they have scored some successes.

We have covered numerous attempts to use the DMCA to restrict people’s access to the hardware they own, but this story is a little different. There is no question of intellectual property being involved here, it is simply that the carriers would rather their customers didn’t even know that they had bought an FM radio along with their phone. If this bothers you, thanks to Free Radio On My Phone you can now join with others and find a voice on the matter.

It’s interesting to note that many FM radio chips also support a wider bandwidth than the North American and European 88 to 108MHz or thereabouts. In parts of Asia the broadcast band extends significantly lower than this, and the chipset manufacturers make products to support these frequencies. This opens up the interesting possibility that given a suitable app a cellphone could be used to receive other services on these frequencies. Probably more of a bonus for European radio amateurs with their 70MHz allocation than for North American residents.

Via CBC News. Cellphone image: By Rob Brown [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

84 thoughts on “Free Radio On My Phone

        1. The couple of broadcasters left in Canada will phase out soon and switch to digital only like they did in the US. The lower frequency used for analog TV transmissions has some advantages in transmission to rural areas, so they are sticking around for a little while.

          1. While there is only two left on ch.4 there are quite a few on rest of the lower six still analog and for several reasons will be holding out until the bitter end.

        2. VHF 4 is very much still 66 to 72 MHz in North America. With the impending spectrum repack in the US, its very possible that a few markets might find themselves with low VHF channels that are once again active (ATSC, of course). But regardless, even if no one is broadcasting on a given channel at the moment, that doesn’t mean that the channel doesn’t exist. Channels only cease to exist in the US when the FCC reallocates spectrum (witness the high UHF range that got clipped off a while back).

  1. Someone please delete this article. This article is beneath HaD’s standards. I do not visit HaD to see shills posting on behalf of the National Association of Broadcasters’ congressional lobby.

    1. God forbid that people should be able to listen to the radio, especially in times of natural disaster when cell and data service is down. The term broadcasting actually means something (contrast this to the narrowcasting of cellular data services). If broadcasters and their associated advocates/industries don’t point out this valuable service (or the possibility for it) to an otherwise largely uninformed public, then who will? The cell carriers sure won’t, for exactly the reasons cited in the article.

      No one is forcing you to do anything. Your objections to being informed are disheartening.

      1. I don’t mind being informed at all. I chose my own handset on the grounds that it had a working radio, was completely rootable, and had an active, open source community. This piece reeks of the same copypasta that I’ve seen repeatedly elsewhere on the net, courtesy of the broadcaster’s lobby.

        If it makes you all feel any better, I spend my time and effort supporting a free and open internet, especially concerning cellular tech – not supporting a dying technology (FM) – which is just trying to prop up it’s value, in anticipation of the inevitable spectrum auction and reallocation.

        Remember, when the spectrum gets sold, these guys will get a hefty payment for giving up their licences.

    2. Someone please delete this comment. This comment is beneath HaD troll standards. I do not visit HaD to see trolls posting on behalf of their own smelly balls.

        1. Had to do that once – the prototype PCB had a bug and we needed a signal from about the 3rd inner row. Luckily before about 2005 the BGAs had slightly wider ball pitch :-) But we used about two or three chips before it worked.

  2. Being able to receive radio in the 72-76MHz range is actually quite a big deal — many hard-of-hearing and conference systems transmit FM in this range. I’ve looked for handheld radios that can receive in that range, and ended up having to make one myself using an FM radio module I found on eBay. If this range can be tuned in on Android phones, I’d definitely pay $20 for some old used Android phones vs. paying $70+ per receiver for the hard of hearing system. (My homebrew one costs like $5, but no one wants a bare PCB, and I’m terrible at 3D modeling…)

    1. I didn’t know that range was used for that. I thought it was done with IR transmitters.

      Do you know what the deviation is? FM broadcast receivers are wide deviation, even wider than the FM audio subcarrier used in analog tv. If you use a wide deviation receiver for narrow deviation, the recovered audio will be quite low. Decades ago people converted FM broadcast band receivers to the ham bands only to realize this problem, most ham band FM being narrow deviation. I gather some multiband portables of the same era used the FM broadcast band IF (ie wideband) for the public service bands (where deviation was narrow).

      So if these transmitters use narrow deviation (which is generally used, other than the FM broadcast band), then reception will be less than optimal.


      1. Not sure, I just used a digital FM radio module and it came in really well (better than the commercial Williams Sound ones we bought, actually, and with stereo headphone jacks rather than mono, yay!) The module I used uses a chip called RDA5807M. I’ve got schematics and source code to drive the thing (although I made it for the ATTiny13A and only to receive a couple known frequencies — it can be easily modified to auto-seek or have a different table of frequencies) if you’d like to have a peek.

        1. I’d love to see the design if it’s available!

          I’ve been looking to do an AM radio pvr… my local station doesn’t have podcasts, which makes it really difficult to catch at 5 in the morning!

          The chip I’ve been looking at is Silicon Labs’ Si4730/31, do you have any thoughts on that chip? Did you design the antenna for it as well?

  3. Wait… so they’ve disabled the FM radio ability on smart phones? I use Pandora, so I haven’t tried to do it in years, but I remember my candybars and flips having the ability to receive FM with headphones inserted (they utilized the headphones as an antenna somehow? I believe that’s the case). I always just kind of assumed this feature was carried through and I just never used it anymore.

    1. It’s usually a side benefit of the Bluetooth hardware in the phone, as most Bluetooth chipsets have built in FM radio circuitry. All that’s required for it to work is an antenna and controlling software, and for several years the stock Android ROM as shipped by Google contained an FM radio app, and the earbuds that were once included with pretty much any new smartphone made for a usable antenna.

      Outside the Android world, you’d typically find FM software in Nokia Symbian phones and the Nokia N900. In fact, in the N900 the FM module was also a transmitter, which would allow you to stream your phone’s music collection to your car’s FM receiver without needing wires or a clunky Bluetooth receiver.

      These days, the FM radio software is missing even from the stock Google-provided ROMs, and earbuds haven’t been included with phones from most of the major manufacturers for several years now.

      1. I own a Xperia Z running cyanogen mod. I can’ fully remember how, but with some mods, i can use it to broadcast FM. It’s realy handy for old cars without bluetooth or usb capabilities.

      2. When will someone make something even close to the N900(I still use too), it wasn’t perfect with the binary blob drivers but linux and for the time maxed out features on a flagship grade phone. I think we will have a chance at least with re-OSing devices once the Android-Linux kernel mainlining for ARM and x86 brings closed drivers to regular Linux and x11.

      3. Just got myself a brand new BLU Studio 6.0 at my local WalMart for 110ish dollars, and it comes with the FM radio app, and its not-network-locked, and uses SIM cards for service.

        1. Yes, my wife’s BLU Life One X has it too, and I believe it’s provided by BLU as an in-house app. They are a pretty great phone company, offering cheap replacement parts like batteries, buttons, and even screens/digitizers for some of their phones. Their phone support isn’t the best but overall I like them.

    2. I forgot to mention, every Windows Phone device I’ve owned (HTC Arrive, Lumia 521, 925, 640) have all had a built in FM radio app and full functionality, no matter the carrier (Sprint, T-Mobile, AT&T respectively). One of the high points of owning a Windows Phone device was that, ironically, Microsoft allowed you to use all the features of your device rather than artificially restrict them.

  4. in the UK most of the phones i have owned have FM radio built in. the one i use now was 10 quid from tesco’s and works fine. not all do but most do. i have an android tablet so no need to duplicate.

      1. Ouch! You could add a power pack for more battery life and less heat, but then you would need to put it in a box too carry it probably.
        I thought about purchasing one of those OTG dongles but a dedicated device would be better so thank you for the insightful post. :)
        If you put the phone in airplane mode, would it possibly work more efficiently? I know that kind of defeats the purpose of doing SDR with a phone but I would be using a detector for occasional detection of noise sources.

  5. In the last 7-8 years I’ve gone through a Nokia, a Sony Experia, and 2 Lumias and all of them have had an FM radio app pre-installed. Even my iPod Nano has a FM radio receiving capability.

    1. My 2009 Nokia N900 even has an FM transmitter, with the required drivers. It’s used to send audio to car stereo’s.
      (There is even a script to crank FM output power outside the spec, in case your car stereo is very well shielded.)

    2. Older iPods didn’t come with FM Radio while other MP3 Players like the Creative Zen did. The iPod was the last mp3 player to include an FM Radio. See, Apple devices are missing features that the competition already has. Apple is prioperity and limits your choices

    1. No. Same in Europe. Galaxy S5 (900F Type, international version) has the FM chip disabled. US sprint version is said to have it enabled. Not that i missed it up to now, I use mostly the car radio. But having the chip and having it deliberately crippled is just shit.

  6. “If you have owned Android phones, there’s a reasonable chance that you are poor but wanted a smart phone.”

    Don’t get me wrong… Yes hacker-types love us some android phones but let’s not kid ourselves. The overwhelming majority of android phone sales are to people who want a cheap smartphone and DGAF beyond that.

    1. Unlike the hand wringing over WiFi, this is not due to any FCC regulatory issue. About private companies disabling any FM broadcast receiver that may or may not be in the Android phones they sell for use on their wireless phone networks. In the event they where capable of broadcasting in the FM broadcast band they wouldn’t have received FCC type acceptance in the first place

      1. Could theoretically be some EU tax on FM radios that would get invoked. Although I’m not familiar with such a tax, but I know sometimes crap like that happens and 95% of the population is unaware.

    1. It won’t work on all of course. I’m very glad that they have a list of compatible devices and carriers on their website. I didn’t have to download the app just to find out it doesn’t work with my phone. (Mine just doesn’t have a capable chip.)
      +1 to Nextradio for making that check easy!

  7. It’s the same on tablets, tablets who do not have cell capability, so you have to wonder what gives.
    But hey the same is true on regular PC’s where various chips have capabilities that are wholly ignored, like serial ports and audio capabilities support, things like stereo microphones with directed focus assisted by the chip.

  8. They are running adverts for an app to use the hidden FM radio in phones, but with a catch. They say using the radio will save you 90% of data fees over streaming. Why the 10%! They want to know what and when and probably where you are listening. At any rate that is a lot of data for something that is free. I have a tiny Sansa Clip player and it’s FM tuner is quite good. I clip it onto the phones and let the cord dangle in a loop. Without the cord these tuners are no good. If you were to blurtooth the phone FM radio to headphones the phone-radio will be without an antenna. Although AM loopstick antennae will fit in a compact space, the nearby microprocessor will swamp the radio with hash. So no AM, Coast to Coast AM (talk), and sports, you will need a dedicated AM-FM radio.
    This one more reason that this conspiracy exists, the NAB didn’t like AM being left out. The same with the plague of the AM band, HD radio.

    1. Sansa made great mp3 players.
      I love Coast to Coast too! Have you listened to Ground Zero? Clyde has a SoundCloud site and it is great. Some shows are crazy but he has amazing discussions with callers. He even lets haters on and debates their points, usually to oblivion. George and Clyde are apparently good friends and frequently refer to each other as ‘that other show’.
      (Posting a link for obvious reasons.)

  9. This is a neat trick. I wonder if you could broadcast DTMF from a gadget and decode it on the smartphone side for telemetry (I know nothing about the libraries available for Android). Would be fun to fly a model rocket or drone that squawks its status back to your phone without the need for extra gear on the receiving end.

  10. Most UEs (smartphones) these days have MBMS/eMBMS support. I guess that’s what you are referring to Jenny, when you say that the operators would prefer you pay for their streaming service? I’ve been involved with the development/trials of both MBMS and eMBMS. It looked very promising, offering broadcast of not just audio, but video, images and other information (e.g. for use in apps). One of the demos I worked on was the broadcast of emergency information when a bush fire (common occurrence in my native Australia) occurred – broadcast included the location of the bush fire, information about the conditions (wind speed, direction), and quickest way out. My understanding is that this technology never really took off commercially, though there are some limited uses around the world (Verizon in US being one of them). And for emergency broadcasts, there is also the 3GPP standardised Public Warning System, which is in heavy use in Japan (for earthquake/tsunami warnings).

    1. I think we all think it’s about itunes and paid youtube and spotify and all those services, you know, streaming sevices, on the internet, that require data plans.

  11. Yea I heard about this when Fort Mac burnt down, people had no cell service and couldn’t get any news and when they found out their phones had disabled FM radios in them they were pissed.

    1. reads to me like they weren’t aware of that the phones had disabled FM broadcast receivers. Most likely if the receivers where operational they may not have been aware of their existence, to use them. They should be pissed at themselves for relying on their cell phone for news. Having a battery operated broadcast band radio receiver with spare batteries has been pretty universal preparedness advice, and has been for decades.

      1. That’s what I said, when they found out their phones had FM radios, but the radios had been disabled by the providers, they were pissed off. And I agree having a battery operated radio is a good idea for emergencies but some of these people were basically picked up off the streets and evacuated, so that emergency radio they had was home while their cellphone with it’s disabled radio was in their pocket.

  12. Consumers(too many of them) are the problem, when they can’t live without the latest greatest. Purchase a wireless phone for making phone calls, and the handy dandy PDA functions even the least expensive phones offer. Purchase a hand crank dynamo/battery dowered flashlight/broadcast band radio receiver to obtain the news with. In the event the shoe doesn’t fit don’t wear it, if it fits consider adjusting your priorities. Hell… if you can afford it get the most featured smart phone your heart desires, but don’t be ignorant, by not purchasing inexpensive alternative methods to get the news and emergency broadcasts.

  13. I recall that the android framework does not support fm radio, and that that was the biggest problem. I use the spiritfm app, and going over its src i noticed some hacks directly talking to a specific set of chips requiring root to make it work. So really, isnt that the biggest problem? Or did i get something wrong?

    1. But what came first, the lack of support or the will to not enable it?
      I know of a windows tablet that has a FM-radio chipped device which does not have it enabled, so it seems windows portable devices suffer under the same issue. (I know since looking fro separate windows FM drivers didn’t work, so it’s not just one device)

      And talking of support in android, I think it’s so silly that android can’t read NTFS without first rooting it and installing (free) third party drivers. It’s the kind of thing that makes me lose trust in an OS.

  14. This is what happens when corruption and the over-regulation it brings allows the carriers too become too powerful. Here in S.E. Asia the phones have almost nothing to do with the carriers. You buy the device you want at a competitively set price, pop in your SIM/RUIM card, and off you go. And phones with FM radios are all over the place.

  15. I remember when the original galaxy s (tmobile vibrant) was being actively developed for in the rom community there was a post discussing how the chip supported fm radio and that someone just needed to enable it’s firmware. This is the same group that discovered the hardware supported a front facing camera, just needed firmware and to solder the actual camera designed for the slot in. Kinda sad i never heard the fm radio discussion completed. I’m going to see if i can find that old post on xda forums

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