Satellite Radio Services

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This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2310, 2005-03-11, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 26 and 28) and their website.

If there is one thing that music aficionados love as much as their favorite tunes, it is the ability to listen to that music, either at home or on the road, without having to disrupt the musical experience to change CDs or tapes. For many decades, that need was served by conventional radio, which offered a fair number of stations playing a variety of music, around the clock.

But that's not all that those radio stations play. Most of them pay their bills by interspersing the songs with commercials… lots of commercials. Public-supported radio is an alternative, but there are few that play music, and fewer that spare the listener from pledge drives.

Yet just as the Internet has given consumers far more choices for their daily news, modern technology allows music lovers to hear nonstop and commercial-free music — all of it broadcast from satellites orbiting over the Earth. Naturally, because the music is not peppered (or, some might say, polluted) with commercials, the satellite radio services are not provided free of charge. But if consumer demand is any indication, fans of music and other streaming entertainment, are willing to pay for a better product.

People can now subscribe to systems that transmit a tantalizing range of content, directly from the providers' satellites to their customers, without any interruptions. There are two primary benefits of these services: They deliver the goods without any commercials, and they offer a much greater choice of musical genres, not being limited to the number of unused radio frequencies within the consumer's particular area.

"X" Marks the Top Spot

Even though the two top satellite radio services, XM and SIRIUS, both offer more than 100 channels of music, talk, and sports nationwide, XM is currently the market leader. In fact, XM has garnered more than 3.2 million subscribers since going live in November of 2001. Headquartered in Washington, DC, it currently offers 20 categories of channels: Decades, Country, Hits, Christian, Rock, Urban, Jazz & Blues, Lifestyle, Dance, Latin, World, Classical, Kids, News, Sports, Comedy, Talk & Entertainment, Traffic & Weather, Special Events, and Premium.

Each category contains multiple channels. For example, the Rock category contains 14 channels, ranging from hard rock to unsigned bands. The News category has 12, including CNN, BBC, and Bloomberg. The Sports category plays host to ESPN, Fox Sports Radio, and nine college sports channels. Traffic & Whether has just that, for 21 major metropolitan areas, including San Diego, as well as a nationwide 24-hour emergency alert channel.

Even though it is the market leader, XM likely realizes that it cannot stand still, because the tremendous growth and profit potential in this field will no doubt attract even more competitors in the future. To stay in the lead, it is continually working towards adding exclusive content. Recently, XM signed an 11-year, $650 million deal with Major League Baseball, and will begin broadcasting its content in the spring of 2005.

Getting started with XM is straightforward: You select the XM receiver that you want to use (there are currently four models), choose a service plan ($9.99 per month, or a multi-year contract to lock in lower rates, plus an optional family plan for adding up to four more XM receivers), and then activate the service.

XM states that you don't have to replace your current car stereo with any new equipment in order to utilize its service. It sells antennas and tuners that pick up the signals from its satellites, and feed them into your existing audio equipment. You'll still be able to listen to AM and FM radio, as well as your CD or cassette player. In addition, all XM radios display the names of the current channel, artist, and song, so you'll always know what is playing.

XM's website makes clear that the company is targeting the more than 200 million automobile and truck drivers in the U.S., as well as home radio users. XM-equipped audio systems will be available in more than 100 new cars in 2005. With regards to audio quality, XM utilizes state-of-the-art encoding technologies and "Neural Audio optimization" in order to achieve digital-quality sound almost as good as a CD.

Getting SIRIUS

Operating from its corporate headquarters in New York City's Rockefeller Center, SIRIUS offers 65 channels of music, along with 55 channels of sports, news, and talk — for a total of 120. While not as widespread as XM, SIRIUS provides streaming content to more than one million customers.

All of SIRIUS's music channels are organized into nine categories: Pop, Rock, Country, Hip-Hop, R&B/Urban, Electronic/Dance, Jazz/Standards, Classical, and Latin & World. They also have eight sports channels (including ESPN), 15 news and weather channels, and 22 channels of talk and entertainment (radio classics, self-improvement, comedy, Hispanic, and even Catholic in Spanish).

You may pay more if you choose SIRIUS over XM. The monthly plan costs $12.95, and more radios can be added for $6.99 per month for each radio. Similar to XM's offerings, you can get lower monthly rates by signing a multi-year contract. Unlike XM, SIRIUS offers a lifetime plan, for $499.99 (not to be confused with $500).

SIRIUS appears to have a lot more hardware choices: portable tuners (complete kits for home or car), full-featured home units (made by such manufacturers as Audiovox and Kenwood), headunits (for cars), separate tuners for headunits and their FM Modulator system (which allows an existing automobile sound system to receive signals), and antennas.

As the second-largest player, SIRIUS has every reason to distinguish itself from the "Other Satellite Radio Company". They provide more channels, thus making possible a greater variety in their mix. In addition, they spotlight an emerging artist every month, and host a streaming music video that spotlights many of the artist's songs.

SIRIUS broadcasts live interviews and performances from its in-house studios — an excellent bonus not available with XM. The company also packages music for business environments. (Good luck getting the boss to okay "Hard Attack Heavy Metal".)

Furthermore, SIRIUS hosts live play-by-play reporting of every NFL game. It also offers two channels of NPR, free listening over the Internet (XM's is extra), and all-inclusive pricing. Every one of the 120 SIRIUS channels is included in a subscription, unlike XM's premium services.

Note, however, that not all of the company's marketing claims on their website appear to be true. For example, they state that the competition has "No long-term savings", while in fact XM does offer multi-year plans.

Nonetheless, if you go with either satellite radio provider, you'll be able to enjoy radio at its finest, without commercials.

Copyright © 2005 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.