Satellite Radio Product Guide

Satellite Radio

Satellite Radio is the biggest revolution in radio broadcasting since public radio broadcasting began in the early 1920's. In broadcast radio's early days, transmissions were land-based, requiring structures on which to install antennas for broadcasting radio waves to radio receivers. Essentially a 21st century enterprise, Satellite radio uses orbiting satellites to offer wider reception areas with higher bandwidth for more channels and higher quality sound than the AM and FM radio that we've been listening to for so long. The two fledgling satellite radio services in this country, XM and Sirius, are competing for the biggest chunk of the listening public's attention. With increasing sales of satellite radio services and products, what can you gain from this new technology? Which is better - XM or Sirius? Or, what can satellite radio offer me?

Around 1920, broadcasting was limited because most buildings and structures weren't tall enough to hold an antenna that could send radio waves to any reasonable distance. Throughout the 1920's and 1930's, new radio stations were born and competed heavily for antenna mounting space atop new skyscrapers being built in major cities. In the 1930's, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC) had so many technological patents on broadcast radio technology that some competitors had to pay licensing fees to 'compete' with them. NBC's antenna was located atop 30 Rockefeller Plaza (currently the GE building), which in 1930, was the world's tallest building at 850 feet high. To this day, a typical land-based radio station has an average broadcast range of about 30 to 50 miles. If you travel long distances in a car, you usually need to readjust your tuner to receive radio stations about every 40 miles or so.

Satellite Radio consists of radio stations that broadcast their signals to transmitters that send them to a network of communication satellites orbiting our planet. Using a special tuner and antenna, certain radio equipment can pick up those signals. Since the satellite is about 25,000 miles up in space, the reception area is about 4,000 miles. If you're traveling in the United States, and have a satellite radio receiver in your car, you can listen to the very same radio station from Maine to Florida to California to Washington to North Dakota and virtually all parts in between. Though Satellite radio signals have been used by the military for decades, it was in the early 1990's that the FCC released one particular frequency (known as the S-Band) for public use in the United States. The FCC gave licenses to two companies in 1997. CD Radio (now Sirius Satellite Radio) and American Mobile Radio (now XM Satellite Radio) paid more than $80 million each to use space in the S-band for digital satellite transmission. Another satellite radio provider, Worldspace, delivers programming in other countries and was once the owner of XM (some Worldspace channels are broadcast via XM).

The two carriers that provide satellite radio service - XM and Sirius - compete against one another to provide radio hardware and programming. You need special radio tuners and antennas to receive either Sirius or XM broadcasts. A tuner runs about $100 (give or take) and an adapter kit might be an additional $30 to $50. One manufacturer, Polk, already offers a satellite radio tuner for your home component sound system. Above that, the radio reception itself requires a monthly subscription (sort of like Cable-TV) of about $10 to $13.00. On the plus side, either service delivers over 100 stations, many offering commercial free programming. You'll find an extensive variety of CD-quality music stations, sports programming, finance information, news, talk shows, and more, available on either Sirius or XM. Satellite Radio can also offer the user certain customized services for weather, finance, and other program feeds.

Manufacturers of car stereo radios have been adding either XM or Sirius bands to their products. Car manufacturers have been installing satellite radio receivers in some models for a few years now, and several models of portable satellite radio receivers are available from a variety of electronics companies. Over the past year, different manufacturers have released separate tuner modules for either XM or Sirius. These tuners can be adapted for use in a car, as a portable, or as a home receiver. Satellite radio tuners generally do not receive land-based AM/FM broadcasts so, if you wish to continue to have access to those bands, you need a radio that receives them too.

XM uses two satellites while Sirius uses three satellites. The companies compete by developing exclusive relationships with different manufacturers to manufacture tuners and accessories, as well as the creation of stations that will broadcast to either Satellite network. Recently, for example, shock-jock Howard Stern signed an agreement with Sirius to protest censorship rules. Prior to that, controversial talk show hosts Opie and Anthony penned a deal with XM. So, as of this point, if you want to listen to uncensored Howard Stern you need to subscribe to Sirius and use Sirius hardware. If you want to hear uncensored Opie and Anthony, you need to subscribe to XM and buy XM hardware. In addition, you can expect competition as to which service gains rights to sports franchises, and cable-network audio feeds (i.e. CNBC, Bloomberg, CNN, Fox News).

At the end of 2004, there are fewer than 3 million subscribers to XM service and about 1 million subscribers to Sirius service. At this point, XM broadcasts some Baseball and Football games and allows Internet-based streaming of its radio programs. XM has a portable receiver available. Sirius currently does not but is likely to follow or offer improved service.

Subsequently, the National Association of Broadcasters filed a petition against the FCC to bar XM and Sirius from providing customized traffic and weather reports to its subscribers. The motive is obvious. Land-based stations feel threatened by the new technology. Can satellite radio eventually replace land-based radio? It's possible, and likely, especially when you consider there were less than a handful of land-based radio stations less than a century ago.

The success of Satellite Radio pretty much follows the success of Satellite and Cable TV. How many people are willing to pay a premium fee for more channels, better quality reception, and more customized programming? You find an increasing number of subscription-based TV programs receiving numerous awards for outstanding quality. This was unheard of in the 1980's. Both XM and Sirius offer a selection of over 100 stations each, many without commercials, of talk, sports, business, news, and comprehensive music programs. Because the services are subscription-based, there's virtually no censorship and substantially greater space for programs that are not available anywhere else.

Satellite Radio is an exceptionally unique alternative to currently available AM/FM radio. As to whether XM or Sirius is the one to choose (as you can't currently choose both), that's a matter of personal choice. The growth of either or both into a dominant force depends on the strength of their marketing relationships. There's no indication as to whether one will outlast the other. Choosing XM or Sirius is a matter of personal preference; both are primed for growth over the next few years.

Either way, if you enjoy listening to radio, the vast selection of listening choices, customized feeds, CD-quality sound, static-free reception, and lots of commercial-free radio selections, satellite radio may just be what you've been dreaming about, what you're looking for, and what you should get.

Did you find this guide useful or have something to add?

comments powered by Disqus