Bottom Line
Satellite radio
You hear it talked about on the CB. There are commercials for it on the radio. Drivers discuss it over coffee at truckstops. There are postings on the Internet. It’s one of the hottest topics today.

by Paul Abelson, technical editor

XM started broadcasting to the general public last November, and as this is being written, Sirius is finalizing details for its Feb. 14 rollout in Houston, Phoenix, Denver and Jacksonville. They do that to get the bugs worked out before going nationwide on Aug. 1, 2002.

I’ve had an opportunity to test satellite radio, courtesy of Delphi Delco Electronics Systems and XM Satellite Radio. We asked Delphi because, while other radio suppliers like Kenwood, Pioneer and Sony are concentrating on the four-wheelers aftermarket, Delco radios will be OEM equipment in trucks. Delco satellite-ready radios will eventually be OEM-installed or available through parts departments at most, if not all, of the truckmakers. Today, some specialty stores install other makes in big rigs, but the Delco models are designed for trucks.

I’ve been asked a lot of questions about satellite radio. They have to do with how it works and what’s involved in getting it, but the most frequently asked is, “How do you like it?”

My answer? I love it. Running out of radio signal has become a thing of the past. I’ve driven across the Dakotas where there are virtually no radio stations (at least none playing what I want to hear) and in the Rocky Mountains where even big city stations can’t be heard 30 miles from downtown because of the mountain in between. With my XM, I can get signal anywhere, with very few exceptions. The variety of programming is fantastic. I enjoy talk radio and sports, while my wife likes all sorts of music when she drives. For a change of pace, it’s nice to listen to some humor. You name it, satellite radio has it. It’s all there at the touch of a button. Most of the music is commercial-free. Sometimes I’ll eat in my van rather than going inside, just to keep listening to a program.

I also like knowing what I’m listening to. When the channel comes in, the HMI (short for human-machine interface) lets me know the channel number and name of the service. At the touch of a button, it tells me the name of the piece being played and the artist. For talk radio, it shows the name of the program or host.

FAQs

You mentioned places where you can’t receive signals. Where?

Both systems work with line-of-sight transmission. If the antenna cannot “see” the satellite, signal will be interrupted. It’s happened to me in garages, in tunnels and when I pull in along the north side of a tall building. The radio just gets quiet. Both companies, XM and Sirius, are putting repeater transmitters in big cities, along sub-surface highways (like Interstate 696 in Detroit) and in major tunnels. By the end of the year, I expect we’ll have seamless reception through the Eisenhower and other major tunnels. XM has already set up Miami, Detroit, Dallas, San Diego, Atlanta, Indianapolis and Washington, DC, with repeaters, and more cities probably will have them as you read this.

Does signal get interrupted every time we drive through an underpass?

Yes, but reception isn’t interrupted. Each XM satellite sends out two signals, four seconds apart. Normally, you listen to the delayed signal, while the first goes into memory. When you drive under an overpass, the system instantly pulls the stored signal from memory. Unless it takes longer than four seconds, you’ll never notice.

What kind of programs and stations are there?

To make tuning easier, the services group the channels by type. XM has 10 music groupings, kids programs, news and information, sports, comedy and variety. Sirius has nine music groups, news and information, sports and entertainment, plus Hispanic news, general information and sports. Some of the programming, like CNN news, C-Span, Bloomberg, CNBC and The Weather Channel, gets its audio feed from cable TV. Radio Disney, ESPN, ABC News and Talk and ESPN are on both systems. XM includes Fox News, The Sporting News and NASCAR radio. Sirius has the Outdoor Life Network, A&E and two NPR channels and Speedvision. Complete listings are available from dealers or on the Internet.

Is there programming for truckers?

Each service currently has one trucker’s channel. XM has The Bozo alternating with Bill Mack (16 and 8 hours per day, respectively). Bozo is live at night, then rerun during the day. Since Bill retired from The Midnight Trucking Network, his programming is original for a few hours, then repeated, too.

Eric Harley is bringing The Midnight Trucking Network to Sirius. Since the service isn’t up yet (as of deadline), I have no firsthand knowledge, but I expect it will be similar. The good thing is that since the shows will be repeated throughout the day, you’ll be able to hear them both in their entirety.

Is the programming really commercial-free?

Thirty music channels on XM and 50 on Sirius are commercial-free, if you don’t count a bit of hype for other channels (at least on XM). The other services except C-Span and BBC have commercials.

What equipment do you need to receive satellite radio?

There are several ways to get Satellite Digital Audio Radio Service (SDARS). The cleanest and best, but most expensive, is to get a dedicated radio. All SDARS units come with AM/FM and either cassette or CD capability. Their satellite capability is purely digital, so you’ll get the best signal possible. People who have bought new radio sets tell me their sound quality is better than their home stereos playing CDs.

I went the less expensive way, with an adapter to translate the digital signal to FM and send it to my existing AM/FM-Cassette stereo. There’s an HMI attached with Velcro to the top of my dash, so it’s within easy reach. The receiver box is hidden. Some aftermarket adapters plug into the cassette slot in the radio, instead of going through the FM antenna feed the way my unit is set up. I prefer the cleaner look, and I can still listen to cassettes if I want.

Either way, you’ll need a special antenna to receive satellite signals. Automobile models look something like a computer mouse with a stick on top. Mine is five inches long, three inches wide and four inches tall. There are mirror-mount antennas available for trucks that are shaped differently, designed to work at the end of a four-foot fiberglass whip. The top 10 inches or so is the actual antenna. It needs to be high so the trailer doesn’t block the signal.

How much do these cost?

I can only give ballpark figures, because it depends on the set up you want and how much quality you are willing to pay for. I went to Best Buy and Circuit City to see what entry-level sets would cost. Prices for some fairly basic units are listed below:

Truck antennas 
Low profile antennas
Fully featured radio*
FM or cassette interface satellite receiver* 
Installation 
* Select one or the other
$140 to $175
$80 to $100
$400 and up
$200 and up

$150 to $300

With a simple installation in a truck, you could get started with satellite radio for as little as $550. To get a fully featured, integrated unit, you could spend $850 or more. Of course, if you’re getting a new vehicle, you can deduct the price of the radio you would otherwise buy.

Satellite-ready radios are available today. That means they don’t have the receiver or antenna for satellite, but they have programmed controls and graphics. Add the antenna and receiver at a later date, for about $300, and you’ll be all set.

Are there any other costs or fees?

Yes, both services have nominal sign-up fees ($15 if you sign up on the Internet) and monthly subscription fees. For Sirius, it’s $12.95. XM is $9.99. Is it worth between $120 and $155.40 per year to get satellite radio? That depends where you drive and how much you’ll enjoy the available programming. I wanted it for the selection. I have several favorites in each category, so no matter what kind of mood I’m in, I’ve got something I know I’ll enjoy.

Once you have the radio, can you add a service or switch between the two of them?

Unfortunately, no, at least not at the present time. They broadcast on different frequency bands, because each band has to be wide enough to handle the 100 channels each has now, plus any that may be added later. You would also need two antennas and two adapter boxes to work with the single HMI. In addition, your subscriptions would total more than $275 annually.

It would be like having both DirecTV and the Dish Network at the same time. There’s a lot of duplication. You really only need one, so choose on the basis of non-duplicated program content.

If they’re the same thing, why does Sirius charge more than XM?

The net result may be the same, but each company has a slightly different delivery. XM has two satellites, named “Rock” and “Roll,” in stationary orbit 22,000 miles above the equator. One is over the east coast, the other over the west coast. XM claims that by having stationary satellites, they can aim their signal more precisely.

Sirius uses three satellites (as yet unnamed) that orbit in an elliptical pattern over North America. At any time, two of the three are over the United States. Being at a higher elevation, there should be less of a shadow problem. I guess it costs more to run an additional satellite and use tracking uplinks.

How long does an installation take?

I left my van while I did a test drive, so I have no firsthand experience. Those who have done them tell me a simple car installation can take as little as two hours, but more typical ones take three or more. Truck installations usually take six to seven hours.

Will satellite radio last, or is it just a passing fad?

This is speculation, but I think it’s more like cable TV than it is like eight-track tapes and Betamax. By the end of 2001, after just two months of service, more than 30,000 people subscribed to XM. Analysts expect that by the end of this year, the two services will have more than 750,000 subscribers between them. Satellite radio was a hit at the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Investment analysts forecast 8.4 million users by 2005. Satellite TV started in 1994, and its subscriber total is now 18 million and growing. Like all things electronic, costs have come down as volume has gone up. I expect the same thing to happen with satellite radio equipment. The companies are both well-financed. XM is partly owned by General Motors, while Sirius’ investors include Ford and DaimlerChrysler.

Those are most of the questions I’ve been asked. If you have any others, please e-mail me at truckwriter@netscape.net. If I don’t have the answer, I’ll find someone who does.