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Radio Redux

First it was AM, followed by FM, and then, satellite radio. Along the way we picked up streaming audio on the web and "Podcasting" to iPods and other portable music players. Now there is a new way to listen to radio.

Mspot, a small Silicon Valley startup company, has developed a way to broadcast live and on demand radio to cell phones. The company's first offering, available on Sprint, costs $5.95 a month for unlimited access to 13 stations including live sporting news and recorded on-demand features from NPR. The company plans to expand not only to new audio feeds but to video as well.

The service currently works only with multimedia phones such as the Sanyo MM-7400 and MM-5600 and Samsung's MM-A700 and IP-A790 but more compatible phones are on the way, according to Mspot CEO Daren Tsui.

The sound quality of the service isn't quite as good as XM or Sirius satellite radio but it's close - certainly as good or better than FM. Current content providers include AccuWeather, The Associated Press, National Public Radio and Sporting News, as well as some music services.

The service allows you to listen to almost live (there is a ten second delay) to news and information, while having access to stored programs and a variety of music feeds. The on demand programming has an advantage over satellite and terrestrial radio in that it starts when you're ready to listen, not on the programmer's schedule.

You can listen through the cell phone's speaker but the best way is to get stereo headphones with a 2.5 mm jack that can plug into a standard cell phone headset jack.

There are also ways to beam the sound from the cell phone to a car stereo, home radio or external speakers. Inexpensive adapters allow you to plug standard headphones into cell phones.

Although the Sprint network, like other cellular services, has its dead spots, it also has some advantages over satellite. Cellular can penetrate into building and other areas that satellite doesn't reach.

Perhaps the biggest advantage, however, is that people tend to carry their cell phones with them at all times. People are far more likely to have a cell phone handy than a satellite radio receiver or portable digital music player like an iPod.

I have an iPod but unlike my cell phone, I don't remember to take it with me wherever I go. I could easily see myself listening to Mspot radio when waiting for a plane, in a cab or whenever the mood hit me. I'd consider using it when I exercise at the gym if it weren't for the fact that my gym is a basement - a cellular dead spot. Win one for the iPod.

Although the offerings are now very limited, Tsui says that there are no technological limits to the number of feeds that the service can provide. That's also an advantage over satellite. While Sirius and XM each have more than 100 channels, their ability to expand is limited by satellite capacity and it's extremely expensive to launch additional satellites.

Mspot gets its programming via the cell phone providers' data channel, which can pick up as many feeds desired. Like the web, it's infinitely expandable. In theory, it's even possible to pick up channels that are not sanctioned by cell phone providers, but that's not part of Mspot's business model. The company works closely with Sprint and plans to expand to other networks including Verizon wireless.

The quality of the sound is somewhat restrained by the bandwidth of the cellular networks but that, too, is changing as cell phone companies roll out high-speed "3G" networks.

Cell phones can also be used for video. Sprint already offers Sprint TV (MobiTV) and Verizon also has its own cell phone TV service. Although I have watched portions of a few shows on my Sprint handset, I don't find the experience very satisfying.

Personally I think radio makes more sense in this very small form factor. Still, Mspot plans to add video and is also talking with motion picture studios about bringing full-length movies to a cell phone near you.

To some extent, cell phones could replace MP3 players like the iPod but that of course would require more memory and more business deals in place. Motorola has announced a service that would allow people to download music and other programming to its phones and there is the likelihood that Napster and Real's "All you can listen to" Rhapsody service could also be extended to cell phones.

Cell phones would also be an interesting way to listen to Podcasts -thousands of homegrown radio programs being distributed, via the Internet, to iPods and other music players. Tsui says that he is open to distribution deals with Podcasters and other audio and video information providers.

A syndicated technology columnist for nearly two decades, Larry Magid serves as on air Technology Analyst for CBS Radio News. His technology reports can be heard several times a week on the CBS Radio Network. Magid is the author of several books including "The Little PC Book."
By Larry Magid