When it comes to satellite radio, the big questions are reception reliability and sonic fidelity. Satellite delivery is a "line of sight" proposition where the receiving antenna must have a clear view of the satellite. To improve on that, the new services - XM is up and running nationally now (see "XM Rated"), and Sirius planned to begin its rollout by mid-February - use antenna "pods" that contain several antennas aimed in different directions. The result is close to omnidirectional pickup, with reception possible even in "shadows." In addition, local transmitters repeat the signal to cover areas where direct reception is poor. Can you receive satellite radio while in a parking garage? No. How about while passing under a bridge? Yes.
Will satellite radio fly? I installed one of the first car units to come off the assembly line, an Alpine XM receiver that I was reviewing for Car Stereo Review's Mobile Entertainment magazine, and so far I like what I hear. In fact, I'm blown away by the quality of the programming. XM programmers really know music, and their selections, in every genre, are terrific. Moreover, despite the data compression that's used to maximize channel capacity, sound quality is plenty good enough, especially for a moving vehicle with the attendant road noise. Finally, I'm surprised by how tenaciously the XM receiver hangs onto the signal even in the midst of a city full of tall buildings. With 100 channels of entertaining programming delivered reliably, satellite radio should have a very bright future indeed.
But can both XM Radio and Sirius have a bright future? Probably not. It seems inevitable that the stronger company will eventually absorb the weaker. Which will that be? It's tough to say. Probably the one that garners the most support from automakers who'll ship cars with satellite-ready radios and built-in antennas. Both have strong automaker partners so far - including GM and Honda for XM, and Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and BMW for Sirius - but it's still early in the game.
So, will Americans actually be willing to pay for radio, on top of all the other monthly fees we incur? I think there'll be enough of us to make at least one service profitable. In fact, there'd better be, and I'll tell you why. Technology must evolve or die. If radio doesn't embrace new technology like satellite delivery, it'll take a back seat to cooler forms of entertainment.
If people willingly pay $30 to $60 a month or more for TV, I certainly hope they'll pay $10 to $13 a month for radio. Satellite radio's success or failure is in effect a referendum on radio's future. If satellite radio fails, it might portend the eventual death of radio itself. Its success would prove that good radio is worth paying for. High stakes? You bet. That's one thing about invasions from outer space - they're never boring.
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