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Monday, January 24, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Satellites feed need for ad-free radio

E-conomy / Paul Andrews

The technology I missed the most on a recent monthlong road trip wasn't the cellphone. Or wireless Internet. Or digital music and DVDs.

There were times when I was out of cell range, and there were places where I could not find a Wi-Fi connection. But these inconveniences were temporary. Meanwhile, my iPod and Macintosh PowerBook were always handy to play music or a movie.

Instead, the technology I missed the most was radio. On drives through the Southwest, long stretches of highway offered few if any radio signals. Even where signals were present, there was no way (short of tedious channel-hopping) to know which stations I would like.

This despite my car having a digital readout that enabled searches on music types, traffic and other parameters. If the right signal isn't present, or the station doesn't support digital technology, it doesn't matter how sophisticated the receiver is.

Occasionally I found stations I liked, only to be frustrated by an unthinkable barrage of commercials. On short trips around Seattle, I can put up with ads. On longer drives, they become obnoxious to the point of intolerability.

It was at this point that the true impact of the iPod on mobile travel became apparent. Hook up an iPod to your car's sound system and you're instantly spoiled by hours of commercial-free sound. Go back to the radio and suddenly even the briefest interruption grates on your listening pleasure.

So the iPod became a starter for another new technology — satellite radio.

It's nice having the 120 to 140 channels that satellite radio offers. And it's great that you can get a signal consistently, on any of those channels, most anywhere in the U.S. (Even interference from downtown buildings is being addressed through terrestrial repeaters, leaving only obstructions such as tunnels and canyons as impediments.)

But satellite radio's real draw is commercial-free programming. If broadcast radio eliminated commercials, it would be a "good enough" alternative to undermine most of satellite's attractions. Given the commercialism of broadcast, it's no contest.

True, you have to pay for satellite — $100 to $200 for the equipment and $9.95 to $12.95 a month to subscribe, depending on which service and options you choose. But here's what life in America has come to in 2005: Consumers have to pay to eliminate annoyances from their lives. And a few bucks a month for hours of peaceful listening seems well worth it.

For years in our household, we paid a monthly fee for uninterrupted digital music over TV cable. Because it can be obtained only by buying a premium TV package, however, the digital music channel effectively costs much more than satellite radio (while offering far fewer feeds).

No wonder more cars, not just luxury models but economy-priced vehicles as well, are coming with satellite-radio modules pre-installed. And that satellite radio was one of the hottest holiday sellers, bumping subscriptions to Sirius past the 1 million mark and XM to 3.1 million.

Satellite radio does come with a few caveats. First is which vendor to back. It seems unlikely the market will continue to support two providers offering essentially the same service. But even if one falters, it's likely to be purchased by the other (or another media conglomerate) and continue with service.

The big question is how long satellite will remain commercial-free. No medium seems infinitely immune to the ravages of marketing. Eventually consumers will probably face commercials on satellite — or the prospect of paying more and more per month to keep the ads away. (Even then, "house ads" a la HBO on cable may spoil the mix.)

For now, satellite radio's popularity may stand as the most obvious test of the public's willingness to pay for uncluttered content. The places consumers can go for ad-free programming are few and far between these days.

Paul Andrews is a freelance technology

writer and co-author of "Gates."

He can be reached at

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