One of the conditions for the proposed Sirius (NASDAQ:SIRI) / XM Satellite Radio Merger (XMSR) is the set-aside of 4% of the spectrum for non-commercial programming without censorship. Many people think of this as educational programming, but there is a potential here for much more than just insightful education.
Both Sirius and XM are participants in the National Alert System [NAS], which replaced the Emergency Broadcasting System in 1994. However, the NAS has been found to be dangerously lacking. (See the article "National Alert System In Disarray".)
The EAS was not even used during the 9/11 attack and there have been several false alarms since it became operable. In fact FEMA, after hurricane Katrina, have concluded that the ERS does not really meet their needs and are installing their own satellite-based distribution network. The CDC really has no formal method for warning the public of health emergencies, and relies on the news agencies to get the story out.
The spectrum set-aside of 12 channels by the combined company presents a unique opportunity to serve the public in case of world, national, and local emergencies of all kinds. Currently, it appears unless there is a serious need for the President to address the nation to warn of eminent danger the EAS is never used on a national basis. Messages approved by the states governors, like weather and Amber alerts, are transmitted at the local level.
In addition to education, some of the 12 non-commercial channels would be available for use by government agencies like FEMA, CDC, Department of Homeland Security, EPA Disaster Response, and the National Weather Service, to name a few, in case of a widespread emergencies. This would give the public a nation-wide and consistent distribution network for emergencies and emergency preparedness, perhaps making the need for additional networks like the one planned by FEMA unnecessary. Since satellite radio will only be available to the subset of the population subscribing to it, other content providers like terrestrial radio could be able to rebroadcast the non-commercial channels.
As an example, the public learned of the recent tomato salmonella poisoning from news agencies that happened to carry it, all with differing stories, as hundreds became sick and some died. There have been many other similar food and over-the-counter drug poisonings. Perhaps many of these deaths could have been avoided with the network described. But, these problems will be miniscule when compared with a terrorist or bioterrorism attack, epidemic or pandemic, or natural terrestrial or extra-terrestrial disaster which could take the lives of hundreds of thousands as Katrina did, and displace millions.
The FCC have a once in a lifetime opportunity to provide the public with a true national emergency and disaster preparedness system by approving the merger of the two companies. Perhaps this could even happen in time for it to be operable before the next Katrina or 9/11.
Disclosure: Author is LONG on Sirius.