Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Satellite Radio Sans Satellites?

I've never yet listened to satellite radio myself, but here are the selling points as I imagine them, in increasing order of importance:

1) you get radio reception even driving through the middle of nowhere
2) you can get radio whose main intended audience is located far away from you, e.g., baseball games from the old home town
2b) you can get radio whose audience has a low population density
3) you don't have to hunt for a station you like in an unfamiliar city
4) possibly better music quality due to digital broadcast
5) pay a subscription fee to avoid listening to commercials
6) [not yet, but eventually] traffic and weather data presented in map form, for better use by you/your navigation system

The thing that strikes me is that only (1)-(3) have the slightest thing to do with satellites or nationwide coverage, and (1)-(2) are more-or-less niche markets by construction, made even less compelling by the advent of iPods and Internet radio. (3) could be supplied by any radio with an intelligent program guide. And (4)-(6) are all about the digital encoding of data.

So why satellites per se? Why not a network or loose confederation of terrestrial stations with digital broadcasts? Satellites aren't cheap.

The (imperfect) analogy that keeps occurring to me is Iridium. With Iridium you could make phone calls from the desert, but people don't want to make phone calls from the desert sufficiently often for Iridium to win out over terrestrial cell phones with smaller, cheaper handsets.

But, the countervailing analogy would be to satellite television, which seems to be successful.

I guess terrestrial digital radio is being implemented by the BBC.


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