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Supertracks estimates that a computer user who listens 1.5 hours a day can cost the broadcaster $81 annually for music of relatively high quality. And many users are listening to many more hours, running up much higher costs.

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Supertracks, a start-up forced to reinvent itself after its first digital music initiative went south, is proposing a way to slash the costs of Internet broadcasting.

The Wall Street Journal said the company today (2/20) will announce a technology that transfers music to computer users' hard drives, allowing them to listen to it later in the order arranged by a radio station or other programmers.

Supertracks' system includes software that prevents users from changing that order or sharing song files with others.

Streaming technology, which is becoming a big cost burden to Internet broadcasters and radio stations, is beginning to set off a round of industry soul-searching that is almost as intense as the legal debate over Napster, the Journal reports.

The paper says Supertracks estimates that a computer user who listens 1.5 hours a day can cost the broadcaster $81 annually for music of relatively high quality. And many users are listening to many more hours, running up much higher costs. The company says broadcasters that adopt its alternative system, called Bridgeport, would cap their annual costs at about $15 a user, no matter what the listening time.

That comparison assumes an initial collection of about 400 song tracks and about 100 new tracks swapped out per month. Much of the communications savings are based on the fact that many radio stations repeat the same songs; with streaming, those songs must be sent to each user over and over, while they only arrive once with Bridgeport. Another benefit is that users can listen to music when they aren't connected to the Internet.

The downside is the time needed for the initial download, expected to take up about 800 megabytes of space on a user's hard drive. Supertracks estimates it takes five hours for a user with a 56-kilobit modem to complete the initial download, though considerably less with a faster connection, according to the Journal.

Supertracks initially set out to help major record labels sell downloaded music. But the closely held company wound up shifting strategies and laying off a third of its staff when those companies' plans took shape slowly and competition from Napster arose.

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