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FCC OKs local airing of satellite radio

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Previously useless satellite radios in thousands of Hawaii passenger vehicles could soon receive more than 130 channels of music, news/talk, sports and other entertainment programming.

New York-based Sirius XM Radio Inc. has received temporary authority from the Federal Communications Commission to deliver its satellite radio service to Honolulu and parts of Alaska via ground-based repeaters, which broadcast a signal from a radio tower.

Satellite radio has been available on the mainland for nearly a decade, but the service has not been extended to Hawaii or Alaska, except online via subscription.

Sirius XM has applied to alter the orbit of some of its satellites, but whether the proposed change will include Hawaii and Alaska in the satellite footprint is unclear. In the meantime, the FCC approval gives Sirius XM the right to send its signal for 180 days from a 2,000-watt repeater.

By comparison, KSSK-FM is authorized to transmit at 100,000 watts.

Sirius XM officials did not respond to calls and e-mails.

On the mainland Sirius XM is available by subscription only with prices starting at $6.99 a month for up to 50 channels, topping out at $19.99 a month for all of the more than 130 channels. Listeners must also purchase special satellite radios, which start at $40, or sign up to receive the service in their vehicles on a satellite-ready radio.

The Hawaii Association of Broadcasters joined with the Alaska Broadcasters Association, the National Association of Broadcasters and California-based Mount Wilson FM Broadcasters Inc. in opposing Sirius XM’s repeater request.

"We’re disappointed by the FCC’s decision," said Chris Leonard, current legislative chairman and past president of the HAB.

Leonard, also president and general manager of New West Broadcasting Inc. in Hilo, dismissed any sentiment that broadcasters simply oppose Sirius XM because it will compete with local radio. "Competition is a fact of life for us," he said.

According to the FCC’s own regulations, "repeaters must have a signal to repeat," and historically the commission has required that a satellite radio operator first deliver its satellite-transmitted service "before it can build or operate a repeater," Leonard said.

"We were opposed to any measure that allows a (satellite radio) operator to skip over the satellite-delivery portion of their obligations and put up a terrestrial repeater."

The impact on free, commercial or public radio could be minimal.

Mike Kelly, vice president and general manager of Cox Radio Hawaii’s six radio stations, is unsure how far the signal from a 2,000-watt Honolulu-based repeater will reach. His fellow general managers across the 89 stations of Atlanta-based Cox Radio Inc. "don’t seem to be affected by satellite radio in those markets. People still like local radio, because that’s what it is. We talk about local things. … We know how to pronounce ‘Haleiwa.’"

People have more choices than ever, "and radio’s held up during all those choices as they’ve come about," Kelly said.

Local radio reaches "probably 98 percent" of the population, said Chuck Cotton, vice president and general manager of Clear Channel Hawaii. "Our seven stations reach 65 percent of the population in a given week," he said.

"My initial thought is, they are licensed for satellite, yet (the FCC) is going to let them do a terrestrial repeater — what part of satellite is that? I don’t think satellites work that way," said Cotton.

While it is competition in some form, "they start on day one with a subscriber list of zero. They’ve got a long way to go before it’s going to become a competitive issue."

The formerly independent Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. filed its initial application to provide the ground-based service in Hawaii and Alaska in November 2006. Sirius merged with XM Satellite Radio in July 2008.

Until January 2006, representatives for Sirius and XM maintained that their respective companies had no intention of serving Hawaii.

Sirius XM’s programming includes a show by radio shock-jock Howard Stern, who debuted on then-Sirius in 2004 with a $500 million, multiyear contract that was renewed last month.

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