Sirius XM’s “free” iPhone app: Even subscribers must pay

Consumer Reports News: July 16, 2009 01:07 PM

[ Photo courtesy of koka sexton ]

Sirius XM’s free radio application for the iPhone has been downloaded more than a million times since its June release, the company recently crowed. That’s despite complaints that the software doesn’t allow you to stream such popular shows as Howard Stern and both MLB and NFL play-by-play, and Nascar radio.

Also, being a regular Sirius XM subscriber isn’t enough to use the app to access content. If you’re a subscriber with a basic plan who wants to stream your favorite shows, you must pay $2.99 extra per month, the add-on price for the “Premium” subscription, to listen with your iPhone (or iPod Touch) past the 7-day free trial.

The add-on is needed even if, like me, you’re one of Sirius XM’s most loyal subscribers, who extended your subscription this past winter for a year or two in return for free online access until your contract ran out.

Another tidbit Sirius XM didn’t tell those of us who locked in last winter: Our free extended online access is limited to their lower-grade 32k streaming audio, not the higher-quality 128k digital that Premium subscribers now get.

When I contacted Sirius XM, as a Consumer Reports representative, about the discrepancy between what they promised us and what we’re getting, a spokesperson told me, “All subscribers were notified the XM Radio Online platform would be upgraded as of March 11 to a higher quality digital audio and would no longer be included as part of a base satellite radio subscription at no charge.”

That’s true. Trouble is, the information Sirius XM sent me, and presumably thousands of others, last winter, never made clear that we’d receive a lower-quality feed if we locked in. Here’s what they actually said in their e-mail last winter:

“And if you renew now, you can continue to listen online FREE for the entire length of your subscription. Effective March 11, 2009, the XM Radio Online listening platform will be upgraded to a higher quality digital audio and no longer included as part of a base subscription at no charge. Save with Longer subscription Plans.”

The disparity between the original sales pitch and Sirius XM’s current stance has prompted a number of locked-in subscribers to fume online. Others are angry at having been downgraded from the 64k streaming that was available for free before March to the lower-grade service.

What makes Sirius XM’s strategy on iPhone access particularly puzzling is that it’s being carried out just as other new iPhone apps, from Pandora and Slacker, have begun offering music streaming for free (albeit with some advertising, which is absent from Sirius XM music channels).

Meanwhile, another Sirius XM price hike—and pitch to lock in to avoid it—looms, with the monthly fee for your first radio set to rise by $1.80 on July 29. More on that rate increase in an upcoming blog.

Have you downloaded the Sirius XM iPhone app? If you’re not a subscriber, has it prompted you to sign up for Premium service? Sirius XM subscribers: Are you planning to upgrade to use the iPhone app? Turning to other alternatives? Weigh in below. —Jeff Fox

Jeffrey Fox

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