Satellite radio is currently at the forefront of the evolution of radio services in some countries, notably the United States. Mobile services, such as Sirius, XM, and Worldspace, allow listeners to roam across an entire continent, listening to the same audio programming anywhere they go. Other services, such as Music Choice or Muzak's satellite-delivered content, require a fixed-location receiver and a dish antenna. In all cases, the antenna must have a clear view to the satellites. In areas where tall buildings, bridges, or even parking garages obscure the signal, repeaters can be placed to make the signal available to listeners.
Radio services are usually provided by commercial ventures and are subscription-based. The various services are proprietary signals, requiring specialized hardware for decoding and playback. Providers usually carry a variety of news, weather, sports, and music channels, with the music channels generally being commercial-free.
In areas with a relatively high population density, it is easier and less expensive to reach the bulk of the population with terrestrial broadcasts. Thus in the UK and some other countries, the contemporary evolution of radio services is focused on Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) services, such as HD Radio, rather than satellite radio.
Satellite radio providers
Satellite radio, particularly in the United States, has become a major provider of background music to businesses such as hotels, retail chains, and restaurants. Compared to old-line competitors such as Muzak, satellite radio's significantly lower price, commercial-free channel variety, and more reliable technology make it a very attractive option. Both North American satellite radio providers offer business subscriptions, though given the merger of XM Satellite Radio with Sirius, the future of XM for Business is uncertain. Sirius's commercial services are provided nationally by third-party partner Applied Media Technologies Corporation.
Satellite radio uses the 2.3 GHz S band in North America and generally shares the 1.4 GHz L band with local Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) stations elsewhere. It is a type of direct broadcast satellite and is strong enough that it requires no satellite dish to receive. Curvature of the earth limits the reach of the signal, but due to the high orbit of the satellites, two or three are usually sufficient to provide coverage for an entire continent.
Local repeaters similar to broadcast translator boosters enable signals to be available even if the view of the satellite is blocked, for example, by skyscrapers in a large town. Major tunnels can also have repeaters. This method also allows local programming to be transmitted such as traffic and weather in most major metropolitan areas, as of March 2004.
Each receiver has an Electronic Serial Number (ESN) Radio ID to identify it. When a unit is activated with a subscription, an authorization code is sent in the digital stream telling the receiver to allow access to the blocked channels. Most services have at least one "free to air" or "in the clear" (ITC) channel as a test. For example, Sirius uses channel 184, Sirius Weather & Emergency.
Most (if not all) of the systems in use now are proprietary, using different codecs for audio data compression, different modulation techniques, and/or different methods for encryption and conditional access.
Satellite radio vs. other formats
|Radio format||Satellite radio||AM/FM||Digital television radio (DTR)|
|Monthly fees||US$12.95 and up||None||Very low — DTR represents a small portion of the total monthly television fee.|
|Portability||Available||Prominent||None — a typical set consists of a stereo attached to a television set-top box (the primary function of the set top-box is normally designed for cable or satellite television viewing).|
|Listening availability||Very high — a satellite signal's footprint covers millions of square kilometres.||Low to moderate — implementation of FM service requires moderate to high population densities and is thus not practical in rural and/or remote locales; AM travels great distances at night.||Very high|
|Sound quality||Varies²|| AM: Usually very low, but can be the highest |
FM: Usually Moderate, but can be very high
|Variety and depth of programming||Highest||Variable — highly dependent upon economic/demographic factors||Variable - dependent on the satellite television provider and the various packages they provide and on the user's subscription.|
|Frequency of programming interruptions (by DJs or commercial advertising)³||None to high - mostly dependent on the channels, some of which have DJs; most channels are advertisement-free because of the paid subscription model of satellite radio.||Highest4||None to low - dependent on the provider; however, it is common that some stations will have DJs. Usually no advertisements (DirecTV and Dish Network both claim to provide advertisement-free content).|
|Governmental regulation||Yes5||Yes — significant governmental regulations regarding content6||Low to none 5|
² The sound quality with both satellite radio providers and DTR providers varies with each channel. Some channels have near CD-quality audio, and others use low-bandwidth audio suitable only for speech. Since only a certain amount of bandwidth is available within the licenses available, adding more channels means that the quality on some channels must be reduced. Both the frequency response and the dynamic range of satellite channels can be superior to most, but not all AM or FM radio stations, as most AM and FM stations clip the audio peaks to sound louder; even the worst channels are still superior to most AM radios, but a very few AM tuners are equal to or better than the best FM or satellite broadcasts when tuned to a local station, even if not capable of stereo. AM does not suffer from multipath distortion or flutter in a moving vehicle like FM, nor does it become silent as you go behind a big hill like satellite radio.
³ Some satellite radio services and DTR services act as in situ repeaters for local AM/FM stations and thus feature a high frequency of interruption.
4 Nonprofit stations and public radio networks such as CBC/Radio-Canada, NPR, and PRI-affiliated stations and the BBC are commercial-free. In the US, all stations are required to have periodic station identifications and public service announcements.
5 In the United States, the FCC regulates technical broadcast spectrum only. Program content is unregulated. However, the FCC has tried in the past to expand its reach to regulate content to satellite radio and cable television, and its options are still open to attempt such in the future. The FCC does issue licenses to both satellite radio providers (XM and Sirius) and controls who holds these licenses to broadcast.
6 Degree of content regulation varies by country; however, the majority of industrialized nations have regulations regarding obscene and/or objectionable content.
In the United States, two companies operate satellite radio services: XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, though these companies are merging. A monthly fee is charged for both services (as of 2005, Sirius also offers a one-time fee of nearly $500 valid for the lifetime of the equipment). Some XM music channels have commercials, while Sirius is commercial-free. Both services have commercial-free music stations, as well as talk and news stations, some of which include commercials. XM uses fixed-location geostationary satellites in two positions, and Sirius uses three geosynchronous satellites in highly elliptical orbits passing over North and South America, to transmit the digital streams. The net difference is that the Sirius signal comes from a higher elevation angle in the northern part of the U.S. and even more so in Canada. (This higher angle makes Sirius' signal less likely to drop out on cities, but more likely to drop out in parking garages, gas stations, tunnels, and other covered spaces.)
Both services are available mainly via portable receivers in automobiles, but both have many accessories so one can listen at home through a home stereo, with a portable boombox, or online through a personal computer. Both services now have some form of receiver that is completely portable.
Satellite radio's chief asset is the fact that it is not localized: drivers can receive the same programming anywhere in the footprint of the service. A stop at any truck stop will demonstrate the popularity of XM among long-haul drivers. In addition, both XM and Sirius carry programming that is simply not feasible on commercial radio stations. Specialty stations cover things such as family talk, radio drama, classical music, and live events.
Success so far
As of Feb 28,2008 XM claims over 9 million subscribers, while Sirius claimed 7.6 million as of October 30, 2007. One critical factor for the success of satellite radio is the deployment of in-car receivers. Both Sirius and XM have attempted to convince automakers to equip vehicles with their receiver. As of 2007, the following manufacturers offer satellite radio as original equipment:
Sirius has an exclusive contract for VW and Audi vehicles from 2007 through 2012. Those brands previously offered both services. GM, Honda and Suzuki are all major investors in XM; Sirius is not offered as options in their vehicles. Bentley and Rolls-Royce come not only with receivers and lifetime subscriptions for Sirius service. XM is featured in select Harley-Davidson motorcycle models, while Sirius can be heard in several brands of recreational vehicles and boats.
One of the challenges for satellite radio has been to move away from cars and into the homes of consumers. Several portable satellite radio receivers have been made for this purpose. XM satellite radio has developed the XM2go™ line of "Walkman-like" portable receivers, such as the Delphi MyFi™, the Pioneer AirWare™ and Giant International's Tao. Polk Audio makes a component-style home XM Reference Tuner and a tabletop entertainment system, the I-Sonic, with XM capability. Sirius has developed the Kenwood Portable Satellite Radio Tuner, Sirius S50, Here2Anywhere and the Sirius Stiletto 100. The Pioneer Inno and Samsung Helix for XM were among the first portable receivers to offer the ability of recording live content for playback later. Thus allowing for satellite radio to compete more fully with MP3 players.
While key agreements with automobile manufacturers are still being made, both companies have made the leap away from satellite radio only in the car and into the homes of consumers. One bump in the road to becoming more widely used in the home was both Sirius and XM running into legal issues in early 2006 with the FCC about their internal FM Transmitters. This required Sirius and XM to pull several of their models off the shelf and fix the problem. The FCC was claiming that the emissions of the internal FM Transmitters were too powerful and needed to be lowered. With these changes any customer buying a new satellite radio receiver doesn't achieve nearly the broadcast distance as the old models. Since this is a key point in the ability to use a satellite radio in the home (i.e. by taking the signal received and then broadcasting it to multiple points throughout the home at the same time and avoid having to bring the satellite radio with them as they move around the home) it has led many subscribers to use an external Personal Fm transmitter like the Whole House FM Transmitter, C Crane, Griffin Technology, etc. to replace the lower powered internal FM Transmitter. Since these external FM Transmitters are Part 15 compliant they can broadcast the signal further than the new internal FM Transmitters now included in the satellite radios and still be legal. These external FM transmitters can hopefully prevent slowing down the progress already made into the home consumer market for Sirius and XM satellite radio.
On November 1, 2004, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) began hearing applications for Canada's first satellite radio operations. Three applications were filed: one by Standard Broadcasting and the CBC in partnership with Sirius, one by Canadian Satellite Radio in partnership with XM, and one at the last minute by CHUM Limited and Astral Media.
The first two would use the same systems already set up for the U.S., while CHUM's application is for a subscription radio service delivered through existing terrestrial DAB transmitters rather than directly by satellite (although satellites would be used to deliver programming to the transmitters). The CHUM service is all-Canadian; the other two applications propose to offer a mix of Canadian-produced channels and existing channels from their American partner services.
On June 16, 2005, the CRTC approved all three services.
In its decision, the CRTC required the following conditions from the satellite radio licensees:
- A minimum of eight channels must be produced in Canada, and for each Canadian channel, nine foreign channels can be broadcast.
- At least 85% of the content on the Canadian-produced channels (whether musical or spoken word) must be Canadian.
- At least 25% of the Canadian channels must be French-language stations.
- At least 25% of the music aired on the Canadian channels must be new Canadian music.
- At least 25% of the music played on the Canadian channels must be from up-and-coming Canadian artists.
These conditions were an extension of the existing Canadian content rules applicable to all broadcasters in Canada. The applicants had until 13 November, 2005, to notify the CRTC of their decision. Both companies managed to negotiate the standards a little to their favor, and in return, they would instead play 50% French content as opposed to 25%. Also, XM Canada succeeded in getting an extra five channels of National Hockey League Play-by-Play onto their platform, without an additional channel creation, by agreeing to cover every Canadian team's game during the season.
CHUM appealed the decision, claiming they would not survive if Sirius and XM both were allowed in the Canadian market, and that the licence conditions regarding Canadian content imposed on Canadian Satellite Radio and Sirius Canada were too lax. Canadian Satellite Radio and Sirius Canada countered that CHUM was simply trying to create a monopoly in the Canadian market.
In late August 2005, Heritage Minister Liza Frulla asked the Federal Cabinet to review the CRTC decision and possibly send it back to the CRTC for further review. Lobbyists complained that the CRTC decision did not require enough Canadian content from the broadcasters. The broadcasters responded by promising to add additional Canadian and French content.
After vigorous lobbying from both sides, the Federal Cabinet officially accepted the CRTC decision on September 10, 2005.
XM satellite radio was launched in Canada on November 2], 2005. Sirius followed later on December 1, 2005. Monthly subscription rates are $12.99 for XM (85 channels) with a one-time activation fee of $19.99 and $14.99 for Sirius with a one-time activation fee of $19.99 (100 channels). (All prices are in Canadian dollars.)
- ↑ XM Radio Miscellaneous FAQs
- ↑ XRt12 Reference Tuner Product Page : Reference XM Satellite Radio Home Tuner : Polk Audio
- ↑ I-Sonic Entertainment Systems with HD Radio from Polk Audio
- ↑ SIRIUS Satellite Radio - Stiletto 100
- ↑ http://www.crtc.gc.ca/archive/ENG/Notices/2005/pb2005-61.htm CRTC public notice concerning Canadian satellite radio services]
- Orbitcast Satellite radio trade publication