Sirius and XM Satellite Radio Service
A marvelous - and ad free - improvement
on old fashioned radio service
like XM Radio's Delphi Skyfi2 unit or their even smaller
Roady2 unit receive satellite radio signals and then
rebroadcast them into your car's stereo system.
The devices can also be docked into free-standing
players, boomboxes, and connected to your home's audio
Part 1 of a 2 part series -
part 2 reviews and compares the
two different providers of satellite radio service and helps
you choose which service - and which radio equipment - would
be best for you.
Satellite radio gives you an
overwhelming choice of more than 150 radio channels, most with no commercials,
and broad coverage all over the US.
Two similar services - XM Radio
and Sirius - offer monthly subscriptions for as little as
$10/month, with extra receivers added for only $7/month.
The units cost as little as $50
each and are easy to operate and the chances are at least one or
two of the 150+ channels will soon be on your 'must listen to'
Why Get Satellite Radio
Many of us have become
increasingly disillusioned with regular broadcast radio.
The programming is not always appealing, and the advertising
content can sometimes reach almost 20 minutes out of every hour,
leaving very little for the music, talk, or news we seek.
Even if you do have a
favorite station or two, chances are their coverage isn't always
the greatest, with reception often poor quality. And if you're
traveling out of town, you're for sure out of
When you're seeking
special information such as traffic or weather reports, you want
access to this information immediately, not the next time it
is provided as part of a regular station's programming, maybe 5 - 10 minutes later.
Satellite radio sets out to
address all these limitations, and to give you more choices,
better coverage, better signal, more 'extra' services, and fewer (usually no)
Not only does satellite
radio set out to offer these service improvements, but it
spectacularly succeeds. A survey of Travel Insider readers
revealed an extraordinary almost 100% 'extremely or very
satisfied' rating for their satellite radio experience.
There are two service providers
in the US - XM Radio and Sirius. The rest of this article
discusses satellite radio in general, and the second part of
this two part series will discuss the differences between XM
Radio and Sirius, and talk about the features to look for in
different satellite radio receivers, to help you choose which is the better service
How Satellite Radio Works
If you have satellite
television like Directv service at present, you probably know all about how
complicated and critical it is to align your dish exactly at the
satellite, and how service can deteriorate in the rain, and, in
general, you doubtless appreciate that satellite television is
not without its problems.
Good news - satellite radio
is enormously simpler. For example, you don't need to
align your antenna in a specific direction, and the antenna
isn't a large dish that would look strange on the roof of your
car, but rather a small little thing about the size of a
hotel bar of soap that magnetically attaches to your car roof.
After the antenna, the next
item you need is a receiver. And this is also small and
simple. Units can be as small as a pack of cards, and are
very easy to use, with helpful menu prompting on (often large) LCD
Lastly, you need a way to
hear the radio channels you're receiving. For in car use,
there are several ways you can do this - choose which is easiest
The easiest way is often to
set the satellite receiver to rebroadcast its signals on an
empty FM frequency and simply tune your car radio to receive the
satellite signal that way. Most receivers also have a
cassette player adapter - this can potentially give you better
quality sound than rebroadcasting the signal on FM - and if you
have the ability to accept a line-in feed into your car's
entertainment system, you can usually feed directly from the
receiver into the car system that way, too.
You can also have an auto
electrician directly wire the satellite radio output into the
antenna feed into your car radio.
How the service is sold and
Each receiver has a unique
serial number electronically built into it. When you sign
up for service, you tell the service provider the serial number
of the receiver you want to use, and they key this into their
database so as to allow your receiver to decode their signals.
Within about 15 minutes of requesting service, the activation
code to your radio has been transmitted and received, and you're
then able to receive service.
If you have two receivers,
you'll need to pay for both receivers - both companies offer
discounted rates for multiple receivers.
If you replace your receiver
with a different receiver, you'll have to ask the satellite
company to switch the serial number in their database (this will
probably cost you a few dollars to get them to make the change).
So access is sold and
receiver ID, which is why the satellite service providers have
encouraged the receiver manufacturers to develop multi-purpose
receivers which can be moved from place to place, enabling you
to get more value from a single receiver.
Not just for your car
The satellite service
providers are keen to make their service as appealing as
possible, and so have encouraged the receiver manufacturers to
develop modular receivers than can be moved from car to home
audio system to boom-box, or even simply from car to car.
Because you have to pay for
every receiver you own and have activated, this enables you to
get broader use from each receiver.
Clever Extra Features and
Different people convert to
satellite radio for different reasons. High quality sound,
available everywhere, a wide range of music programming choices,
and generally free of commercials, are the obvious main reasons
for most of us.
But there's lots more to
like about satellite radio than just this.
How often have you tuned in
to a radio station and thought 'I wonder what that song/who the
artist is?'. But, of course, inevitably you miss the
information because by the time it is announced (if at all)
you've tuned away, left the car, or are in some other way busy
With the satellite radio,
you can simply glance at its display and most of the time it
will be telling you details about the song and the performers.
Stock Quotes and Game Scores
XM can also stream selected
stock quotes and/or game scores along the bottom of the display.
Pause or Play
Another clever option is the
ability for some receiver models to save a program for you to
play back later, similar to how Tivo works with television.
You can in effect 'pause' the music and then start it again
later. You can also jump back to earlier songs to replay
them if you wish.
Note that different model
radios offer different amounts of memory for this feature, and
most radios don't yet have this option at all.
Both services offer local
traffic coverage in major metro areas around the US. XM
has dedicated channels, one per area served, but Sirius shares
some channels between two cities, meaning half the time you're
waiting and listening to irrelevant information before your
city's turn comes around.
Both services also provide
local weather reports and forecasts, generally for the same
areas they offer traffic reports.
In many cases, you can
program your receiver so it will be continually scanning all
channels for up to (about) twenty of your favorite artists and
songs. If it detects one being played on any channel, it
will alert you, giving you the option to jump over to the other
channel to listen to the song/artist.
In reality this is a feature
that few people will bother to use, but some people might find
The good news is that most
of the music channels are free of commercials. But these
channels are often free of announcers, too, and may have
nothing more than nonstop music tracks, with an occasional
channel identification spot stuck in between a couple of tracks.
Some people (myself
included) enjoy listening to a good dj or announcer who can add
interesting commentary to the music he is playing, whereas
others just want the music and nothing interfering with it.
Because the receivers will
typically show details of each track as it plays the music, you
can still find out what you're listening to, simply by looking
at the display (not always a wise thing to do while driving, of
Satellite radio via internet
Once you've signed up for
service with either of the two providers, you can access most of
their programming through their internet site as well as via
This means if you're at your
computer (and with a faster than dialup connection) you can have
satellite radio service streaming through your internet line and
out your computer speakers just as conveniently as via your
This is particularly helpful
if you can't otherwise get good satellite signal inside your
home or office.
Signal Availability and Quality
The good news?
Satellite radio signals can be received over just about the
entire continental US, with some signal spillage up into Canada,
down into Mexico, and off-shore a distance as well.
The bad news? Unlike
regular radio signals, satellite radio signals don't penetrate
through things very well. Your antenna needs to have close
to an unobstructed line of sight to where the satellite is in
the sky - generally to the south, and more so the further north
you go; and also to the east if you're in the west of the
country or to the east if you're in the west of the country.
This is usually not a problem when driving your car. You mount the matchbox
sized antenna on your car roof and most of the time it has a
good view of the sky. Exceptions can exist if driving
through tunnels, or in urban canyons with tall buildings on
either side of you obliterating a view of much of the sky.
Any black spots you might encounter while driving typically only
last for a few seconds before you've driven on out of the poor
signal area, so are seldom a problem.
A more notable exception is
if you're trying to use your satellite radio inside a building.
If you can get its antenna so that it has a good view outside
the house to where the satellite(s) is/are likely to be, then
you'll have no problems, but if this is not possible, you might
find you can not get a usable signal inside the house.
Antennas can be remotely
mounted and then relay/retransmit signal into your house.
But if you're having problems getting a signal inside, perhaps
the easier solution is simply to use the internet streamed
alternate to the broadcast signal and play your satellite radio
service through your computer.
Unlike regular radio, and
due to its digital transmission, satellite radio tends to either
give a perfect signal or no signal at all. There aren't
large areas of 'marginal' signal where you get poor quality
sound, it is more an all or nothing experience.
The History of Satellite Radio
Satellite radio was first
suggested back in 1992, when the FCC allocated a band of
frequencies in the 'S band' (around 2.3 GHz) to be used for this
type of broadcasting - what was formally described as 'Digital
Audio Radio Service'.
Four companies applied for
licenses to use these frequencies, and the FCC eventually
awarded two licences; one to CD Radio, now known as Sirius, and
the other to American Mobile Radio, now known as XM Radio.
Each company paid over $80 million to get permission to use
XM Radio was the first to
start service, on 12 November, 2001. Sirius started
broadcasting on 1 July, 2002.
Should you get satellite
radio? If you spend any amount of time in your car, then
almost certainly, yes you should. Travel Insider readers
report an extraordinarily high level of delight with their
satellite radio service experiences.
The service is easy to use,
and inexpensive. Try it yourself, and your only regret
will probably be like mine - a wish that I'd got satellite radio
Read more in Part 2
Part 2 we compare the two
competing Satellite radio services - XM Radio and Sirius - to help you choose
which service is best for you, and talk about the different
types of receivers to use to get satellite radio service.
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18 Nov 2005, last update
28 Nov 2012
You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.