The cellular empire strikes back

Just a year ago, a lot of people, including me, were predicting that the cellular phone companies would implode as Voice over IP and broadband wireless stole customers.

I'm not so sure anymore. What's different is that the cellphone industry has begun offering a broader range of services that are more likely to be popular. As basic cellphone service has become a commodity with cut-throat pricing, it's add-on services that help pay the bills.

Sprint Nextel has just announced a streaming radio service, with a variety of music and news "channels." Priced at $7 a month, it costs less than the popular satellite radio. Like satellite and Internet radio, it breaks the old radio model that depended on a certain range of frequencies. While it's not a broadband service, it looks like a broadband service and leverages the existing cellular infrastructure.

But streaming audio ties up a cellphone circuit between the tower and the phone, so it will be interesting to see how well this works with voice service. If it is popular, Sprint Nextel will have to add more equipment and/or more towers. Presumably they have studied this and know what the future costs could be.

The problem with the service is that it exists in a Sprint Nextel walled garden. You can only get it if you are a customer of Sprint Nextel. A broadband version would be more accessible to more people, and would not be device dependent.

But it is definitely forward-thinking, unlike the record companies, who keep trying to drag us back to the age of vinyl records, or something like that.

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