Features June 2003 Issue

Static-Free Satellite Radio: XM and Sirius

Digital Satellite Audio Radio promises near-CD quality digital sound, but it hasn't taken off as expected. Is there good reason to buy a receiver for your boat and subscribe to either of the two competing companies?

Last year, a reader asked when we were going to take a look at digital satellite audio radio… DS what? Seems there's an acronym for darn near everything these days. The reader had plunked down his hard-earned money for a satellite radio on his boat and said he was pleased. "You ought to look into it," he said. 

The Delphi SKYFi for XM is the first portable digital satellite radio. Price all up is $229.98.

Right off the bat, we could see advantages: static-free reception and continuous coverage. No fade-out as you leave your favorite station's signal coverage area. A quick study reveals another plus: the two main providers of DSAR in North America offer 100+ channels, most commercial-free. In addition to your favorite brand of music—classical, country, jazz, pop, or soft rock—there are talk shows, news, and weather reports (beginning to sound like regular commercial radio—and TV—doesn't it? Zen question of the month: What's the difference between a commercial and one of National Public Radio's sponsor plugs?) In any case, readers who have, or have seen, satellite TV (like DirecTV), will be familiar with the long list of crystal-clear channels available for the picking.

The origins of DSAR date to 1992, when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized the 2.3 GHz frequency in the S band spectrum for nationwide broadcasting of digital satellite signals. Four companies applied for a license, but only two plunked down the $80 million fee. These were CD Radio, now Sirius Satellite Radio, and American Mobile Radio, now XM Satellite Radio. A third outfit came on board later, WorldSpace.

If you want satellite radio, you must buy a dedicated satellite receiver compatible with one of the three service providers above. The radio will only work on the one service you contract with, not the other two. Each provider charges a monthly fee, just like cable or satellite television. First buy the radio, then subscribe to the service.

Though there are differences between how each of the three service providers has set up their broadcasting system, the basic technology is the same. Signals are sent from the service provider's headquarters on the ground to its satellites high above the earth. The signals are then retransmitted from the satellite down to receivers on earth. Some systems also have repeaters on the ground to provide signals to certain areas that might not be able to receive satellite signals.

Here's a capsule look at each of the three service providers.

XM Satellite Radio
XM launched its service on September 25, 2001. It uses two Boeing HS 702 satellites in geostationary orbit, meaning they stay in the same place over the earth. Nicknamed "Rock" and "Roll," the two are located at 85° W longitude and 115° W longitude. The first is a north-south line roughly over Cincinnati, Ohio, and the second over Las Vegas. Given the angles of transmission from their position about 22,000 miles above earth, coverage of the entire continental United States is assured.

XM offers 100+ channels. In addition to developing its own music channels, the list includes the following:

• Black Entertainment Television
• 5 music channels by the Hispanic Broadcasting Corporation
• Bloomberg News Radio
• C-SPAN Radio
• CNN/Sports Illustrated
• CNN en Espanol
• The Weather Channel
• One-on-one Sports
• AsiaOne
• Salem Communications
• USA Today
• BBC World Service
• PBS's News Hour with Jim Lehrer
• Jonathan Schwartz

Digital receivers decode the satellite signals with proprietary chips. XM’s chips are made by STMicroelectronics. XM partners include Alpine, Clarion, Delphi Delco, Motorola, Pioneer and Sony. As with its competitor Sirius, XM is banking on auto sales. GM reportedly has invested in XM to the tune of $100 million. XM is offered in some of its cars. For GM, there's far more than just entertainment in DSAR. What the automaker aims for, we are told, is value-added services, such as traffic advisories ("Accident on Elm and Oak, Mr. Jones. Suggest you detour via Peach St."), and even more enticing, two-way marketing pitches: "Time for a new minivan, George? How does zero percent down and no payments for six months sound? If you'd like to speak with a Chevrolet representative, press the star button on your radio now."

Ah, you knew it couldn’t be as simple as just getting commercial-free music, now, didn't you?! Two-way may be in the works, but it's not here yet.

XM's monthly fee is $9.99. Multiple-year subscriptions offer discounts. The hardware choices are somewhat confusing. XM receivers can be wired to a car stereo via an adapter kit, or wired to a home or boat stereo via a different adapter kit. Kits include the special antenna you need. Some companies offer XM-ready radios, to which a receiver and antenna must be added. The least expensive package, using an existing radio, costs around $199; prices go up from there. Recently, Delphi introduced its portable SKYFi receiver for $129 and adapter kits for auto and home at $69 each. The receiver also can be set up as a portable boombox. The speakers and antenna add-ons cost $99. More on the Delphi later.

Sirius Satellite Radio
Rather than use geostationary satellites like XM, Sirius has three satellites orbiting earth in an elliptical constellation. Each satellite is over the continental US about 16 hours a day, and they overlap, of course, in order to provide continuous coverage. Like XM, ground repeaters are used in some areas where buildings obstruct signals.

Sirius took its name from Canis Major, the dog star, brightest star in the Northern Hemisphere.

At present, Sirius receivers are mostly for the car market. Available are receivers and antennae, and adapter kits that utilize the existing car stereo. They are available factory-installed in new cars from Ford, Chrysler, BMW, Volvo, Mazda, Dodge, Jeep, VW, Audi, Nissan, Infiniti and others; plus agricultural equipment by John Deere and Thunderbird Formula powerboats.

Programming is similar to XM. Sirius calls its channels "streams." In addition to its own 60 music streams, with programming provided and hosted by its own staff at Sirius headquarters in New York City, Sirius offerings include 40 non-music streams. Here are just a few of the choices:

• National Public Radio
• Bloomberg News Radio
• Sports Byline USA
• SpeedVision
• OutdoorLife
• C-SPAN Radio
• Radio Disney
• WISDOM Radio
• A&E
• OutQ
• Court TV

The monthly subscription fee for Sirius is $12.95. There is a one-time activation fee of $15, though discounts may be available.

Sirius-ready radios are available for as little as $180, and go up to $2,800 in-dash DVD/CD/MP3 televisions. Like XM, you need a receiver and antenna. The Sirius website shows head units, tuners, FM modulators and antennas.

WorldSpace was founded in 1990 with the aim of disseminating information that would help halt the spread of AIDS in Africa. It has since grown into something much larger. Says founder Noah Samara, "The WorldSpace goal is to create a new form of electronic media. But our vision is an ancient one: to spread knowledge for the good of mankind."

WorldSpace launched its first geostationary satellite, the AfriStar, in 1998 and its second, the AsiaStar in 2000. A third, AmeriStar, is planned for expanding coverage to South and Central America, but not North America. WorldSpace has agreed to share technology with XM. WorldSpace receivers use the StarMan chipset made by STMicroelectronics. Each satellite has three beams, as can be seen in the coverage illustration. Not all programming—20-40 channels—is available on each beam.

WorldSpace hopes to dominate the world market for DSAR. With service in many areas of the world where no land-based radio signals can reach, WorldSpace estimates it has 4.6 billion potential listeners.

Like the other two service providers, WorldSpace offers a wide variety of programming, including NPR, Bloomberg, BBC, AMI and a lot of foreign stuff, such as MTV Asia.

Receivers are available from a variety of online stores, such as Nevada Communications in Great Britain, which sells battery and AC-powered models from Hitachi, Joy Ear and Sanyo. Prices we saw ranged from £119 to £139. Unlike radios sold for XM and Sirius, WorldSpace radios also receive analog AM/FM stations, which makes an investment in one less risky, in our opinion.

So Why Doesn't Everybody Have One?
Several years ago, DSAR companies promised to revolutionize radio in the same way that cable television changed that medium. It hasn't happened. Wired.com reported last fall that XM had just 200,000 subscribers and had lost $240 million. Sirius was in worse shape, with 6,510 subscribers; it reported income of $54,000 and losses of $192 million. These numbers may have improved since, but not enough to bolster their stock prices. As of this writing, XM's stock (XMSR) was at 6.18 and Sirius (SIRI) at .67.

As if things weren't tough enough, on October 10, 2002, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized land-based radio stations to begin broadcasting digital signals, thereby countering one major advantage of DSAR—audio clarity. Where analog AM/FM signals are subject to static, digital signals are clean. A company called iBiquity Digital Corp. has developed a technology that allows radio stations to broadcast both digital and analog signals; this is important because it means that existing radios, in the car and in the home, won't become obsolete as stations begin converting from analog to digital broadcasts. If you want digital, you'll have to buy a new receiver, but you can still receive analog signals with your existing radio.

This bleak picture doesn't seem to have fazed company leaders, however, who still project a rosy future for the technology. And as digital satellite radio fans keep noting, the battle between land and satellite radio is less an issue of quality than it is one of quantity. Regular land stations offer remarkably narrow slices of the music pie: mostly country and pop. You might get big band jazz or bluegrass at some odd hour, for an hour or two, but seldom during prime marketing hours. With DSAR, you can have what you want when you want, and without commercial interruption.

As Chance Patterson, XM's vice president of corporate affairs told Wired.com: "iBiquity isn't offering anything that deals with the programming that you get on AM and FM today, or the commercials that you get. With XM Satellite Radio, you get unique programming and you get it on a nationwide, coast-to-coast basis. Those are unique to us, and have been part of our success so far."

Our Experience
To hear firsthand digital satellite radio, we took a leap of faith (that the service will be around a few years from now) and bought a Delphi SKYFi portable radio for XM (made in China). The package cost of $229.98 includes the receiver, antenna and portable boom box with speakers. We bought it online from BestBuy.com. Other online stores sell the Delphi receivers and car/home adapter kits for the same price.

The receiver and radio arrived in separate boxes, within a few days or ordering. One of the boxes looked fairly battered, and in our paranoia we wondered if it had been kicked around a warehouse for a year. Then again, maybe it was just shipping. In any case, the radio had arrived (instead of an e-mail saying DSAR had been junked faster than you can say Iridium) and this made us feel better.

Instructions for assembling the radio are straightforward. Plug in the AC adapter (the Delphi SKYFi also can be powered by D-cell batteries for portable use); plug in the antenna and locate it with a clear view to the sky (your experience with a handheld GPS will come in handy, though we did find the SKYFi's antenna less twitchy than our Garmin E-Trex); and then snap the receiver into the boom box. Snow and rain, however, may interrupt the signal, causing reception to come and go.

Like a GPS, when powered up the radio prompts you to check for satellite signal strength, shown on a four-segment meter. A voice then promises that you are just minutes away from enjoying the best radio you've ever heard. A few teaser channels are available for previewing. The voice then tells you to subscribe either by logging on to www.xmradio.com or by calling an 800 telephone number. Since you save $5 on the one-time hook-up fee ($9.99 vs. $14.99), we logged on. Sign-up was easy. You can pay most anyway, even by check, but credit card is preferred (of course). Within minutes we had 101 channels at our disposal. The radio comes with a nice little remote that makes entering a channel simple from a distance. You can do other things, too, like adjust volume, remember certain channels, and so forth. You know the regimen.

Sound clarity is excellent. The Delphi SKYFi is a decent small portable radio, but if you are an audiophile, buy the home stereo adapter and play it through your amp and speakers.

The range of music and information is indeed remarkable. Each channel goes 24/7 with music of its kind, from big band jazz to Latin to bluegrass to classical and much, much more. It's almost overwhelming, like trying to choose a paint color from the thousands of chip cards at a paint store. That's the good news: you can hear your favorite genre of music anytime you want, and it probably won't repeat itself anytime soon. And that's the one negative: while you can hear your favorite genre, you can't just dial up your favorite musician or current top song. For that, you still need to buy the CD. Exploring the 101 channels of XM DSAR is like loading a big CD player with 101 discs of wildly varied music and hitting the "random" button. But for $9.99 a month, hey, that's less than the cost of one CD, so even if it doesn't stop us from buying music at the mall, it is sure to cut down on our spending.

XM and Sirius signals can, of course, be received all across the US. When asked about coverage off the coasts, XM's Chance Patterson, said, "You should be able to receive the XM signal for several hundred miles off the East Coast, West Coast or in The Gulf of Mexico." Sirius says it, too, has a 200-mile range from the coasts.

We asked Patterson about how often music is repeated. "Repeats are rare," he said. "But we will replay a show or special based on the channel's programming director's decision."

The Future of DSAR
And as for the future of XM and DSAR? "XM now has more than one-half million subscribers," Patterson said, "keeping us on pace to exceed the one million mark later this year.

"Frankly, I'm more enthused than ever for several reasons. One, we've proven that this service works very well from a technical standpoint. So, the 'is it going to work?' challenges are behind us. Two, lots of people are buying the service and they simply love it. Our subscribers have been true evangelists, really driving sales for us in a way that is unique for a consumer product that costs $199. When you combine this phenomenon with increased availability of XM in many more new car models, it's clear that there is a huge and growing market. Finally, we just completed a $475 million financing package that will fund the company through cash-flow breakeven.

"Taken together, by eliminating the technology, demand, and financing concerns, XM has effectively put itself on the path to mass market appeal in the near future. I really do believe this."

Is digital satellite radio here to stay? Probably. Despite its growing pains, this is a technology that won't be killed. The players may change, but XM and Sirius seem, well, serious. If you like a style of music that's hard to find where you live (or on your boat), or want to keep up with the news well off the coast, DSAR is a fair deal. It's hard to imagine that it would meet all your music needs, but when you get sick of your CDs, it's an alternative with range.

At this point, the story is more about the coverage than the receivers, but it will also be interesting to watch the development of new receivers, new and more specialized programming, and, if we're lucky, more competition in the DSAR marketplace.


Also With This Article
Click here to view "Marine Antennas."


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