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The merger of the two U.S. satellite radio networks, XM and Sirius, was finally and officially completed at the end of July. The result is total subscribers variously reported as 14 to 18 million. This allows Sirius XM to claim a number two position in the radio industry, after the monster Clear Channel conglomerate (which had strongly opposed the merger). Satellite radio is still a very small player compared to what it calls "terrestrial radio," which has 230 million listeners.

In granting the two services permission to merge, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ordered a three-year price cap. That means customers who want to maintain a subscription to either Sirius or XM at the current $12.95 a month can do so. However, the price structure will become more complex with the addition of a la carte options, which the FCC ordered Sirius XM to make available within three months of the merger.

PC Magazine reports that one of those options will be a $16.95 package that provides access to all of one service plus selected features from the other. A choice of "mostly music" or news, sports and talk will cost $9.99 a month. There will also be 50-channel and 100-channel packages with the option of adding additional channels at 50 cents a month.

The big question, of course, is which of the 198 Sirius and 170 XM channels will survive the merger. When the two networks were rivals, they went all-out in signing big-name stars. Howard Stern's 2006, five-year contract with Sirius was reportedly worth $400 million, and a year later, he received a bonus of $83 million for exceeding subscriber growth targets. It takes a lot of $12.95 subscriptions to cover costs like that.

XM currently offers music programming by Bob Dylan, Tom Petty and Wynton Marsalis as well as an "Oprah & Friends" channel and The Bob Edwards Show. Sirius counters with Howard Stern, 50 Cent, Deepak Chopra and Martha Stewart. Both Sirius and XM offer channels devoted to decade-specific music playlists. Both offer comedy channels, Disney, CNN, National Public Radio and lots of sports.

Sirius XM CEO Mel Karmazin told Orbit.com, "The idea is to take a look at what parts people like from the Sirius side, and what parts work from XM's side, and then put them together." It may be telling, however, that Karmazin provided this example: "We have an 80s channel, and XM has an 80s channel. They're both popular, right? But we have the MTV personalities on ours and XM doesn't." Whatever the FCC might say, it seems to be "us" vs. "them" at Sirius XM.

Of course, a true merger of the two satellite services requires satellite receivers that are intercompatible, and that's where the FCC may have dealt a blow to satellite radio. The order says that Sirius XM cannot require equipment manufacturers to create devices that are incompatible with hybrid digital (HD) radio, iPods or other audio technology. Currently, if you invest in an XM receiver and installation, you have an incentive to maintain the subscription even if you find yourself less than delighted with the quality of the reception or the variety of the programming. If manufacturers take the FCC seriously, they can create devices that will be useful with or without satellite. That could provide an initial boost for satellite radio, but ultimately subscribers may find (and here I am writing from experience) that downloading an assortment of free podcasts and a selection of favorite music works just as well for uninterrupted cross-country listening, and at a lower cost.