Radio and TV Tuners Come to Smartphones and Tablets

By Joan Engebretson January 31, 2013

Smartphones and tablets are already well on their way to replacing MP3 players and cameras, as recent research from Accenture revealed. But the list of devices whose functionality is finding its way into smartphones and tablets doesn’t stop there: Sprint recently said it plans to give customers the ability to listen to local FM radio station broadcasts on certain smartphones – and Canadian company Escort now offers an add-on accessory that enables users to watch over-the-air TV on their iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch. Android support is expected soon.

We’re not talking about radio and TV programming streamed to the user’s smartphone or tablet over the Internet: Both Sprint’s radio offering and Escort’s iPhone/iPod add-on are tuner-based, which means using them doesn’t eat into the user’s monthly data allotment – and that means the tuner-based options  could get used more heavily than streaming options.

Could they actually replace traditional radios and television sets?

At first the idea might seem far-fetched. But I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that NextRadio could eat into the sales of traditional radios. And the Escort device also could have some potential as a replacement product -- but not a replacement for the product you might think.

Sprint’s Radio Tuner

Sprint said it has reached a preliminary agreement with representatives of the U.S. radio industry that will enable Sprint customers to listen to local FM stations from “a broad spectrum of radio companies and aggregators” on select Android and Windows smartphones during the next three years. The capability, which the company is calling NextRadio, is expected to be available later this year.

To use some Internet Age jargon, I would argue that there are two main “use cases” for the traditional radio today – in-car entertainment and waking the user up every morning.

People who store music on their smartphones can already plug the device into their sound systems on later-model vehicles – and if we get to a point where smartphones routinely come with built-in radio tuners, I wouldn’t rule out the possibility that manufacturers might start leaving radios out of their vehicles.

And considering that smartphones already have a built-in clock, it seems like it wouldn’t be difficult for them to enable a built-in radio tuner to wake users up to their favorite station.

Dyle TV Tuners

Escort isn’t a name you hear much in telecom circles, but the company is involved in a lot of different areas, including radar and laser detectors as well as GPS-enabled navigation and tracking products. The accessory that Escort has developed for iPhones and iPads is designed to let users watch programming from Dyle TV – an offering created by a coalition of TV broadcasters to make over-the-air broadcasts available to mobile devices.

As we’ve previously reported, the Dyle service uses some of the spectrum that was freed up through the digital TV conversion and each station needs to invest about $125,000 to $150,000 to support the service. MetroPCS offers at least one smartphone that has a Dyle tuner built in. The Escort offering gives Dyle capability to iPhone and iPod owners regardless of who their wireless carrier is.

People love their big screen TVs, so I don’t see the MetroPCS smartphone or the Escort accessory replacing traditional TVs any time soon -- except when end users are outside the home or when the number of separate programs that family members want to watch exceeds the number of traditional TV screens available.

I’m wondering, though, if the Escort device might fit somehow into the video cord cutting trend. There are a small but growing number of people who would like to eliminate their cable or satellite TV bill by relying on a combination of streaming video and traditional over-the-air broadcast TV. But the switch to broadcast TV isn’t always  as easy as one might expect, because many homeowners long ago disconnected their rooftop antenna (if they ever had one) and today’s televisions typically don’t come with old-fashioned rabbit ear antennas.

Interestingly, the Dyle TV smartphone/tablet tuners are designed to cover 90 percent of the broadcasters’ traditional coverage area. This may not be the most convenient solution to the over-the-air reception problem, but depending how tight your budget is and how much traditional broadcast TV you watch, it might be good enough.  

I’m also thinking there might be some way to transfer the content from the smartphone/tablet Dyle tuner to a bigger screen using Wi-Fi or some other method. If that capability doesn’t exist already, it seems like something that could be added relatively easily.

It’s not clear, of course, whether Dyle TV is going to succeed. But if it does the nascent TV antenna renaissance could be over before it starts. And if manufacturers and wireless carriers get creative about giving some type of wake-up functionality to smartphones with NextRadio-type tuners, we just might see radios added to Accenture’s endangered device list.




Edited by Brooke Neuman

Contributing Editor

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