Magazine article Newsweek

A Little Space Music: Digital Radio Delivered by Satellite Finally Comes Online for Subscribers Nationwide. It Sounds Terrific. but Is America Ready to Rock and Roll

Magazine article Newsweek

A Little Space Music: Digital Radio Delivered by Satellite Finally Comes Online for Subscribers Nationwide. It Sounds Terrific. but Is America Ready to Rock and Roll

Article excerpt

What Kind Of music do you like?" asks Jeff Snyder, systems vice president of XM Radio. I hesitate before answering. Snyder is threading a big maroon Cadillac through Washington, D.C., traffic while simultaneously showing off a cute piece of Sony hardware. Plugged into the car's radio, it plays digital music beamed down from a satellite. He hands me a card listing 100 channels--XM's menu--and I reveal my Gen-X status by picking number 44: "classic alternative." XTC's "Dear God" unfolds from the Caddy's speakers. At 18th and K Streets, the signal cuts out for a second. Snyder points at a building on our right. It's blocking the satellite signal, and the repeater--a kind of re-broadcaster--in Georgetown isn't working yet. "But I drove all the way to North Carolina with no problems," he says.

For Satellite Digital Audio Receiver Services (SDARS) the trip has finally begun. After 10 years of hype XM will be available nationally next week. A competing service, Sirius, has delayed its start until early 2002, so for a while it's XM's game. The company has two of the most powerful communications satellites ever built hovering over the equator. Electronics retailers are selling XM radios, and later this month GM will start selling cars with optional XM radios in the dashboard. In the 1990s analysts loved the idea--commercial-free, niche digital radio. In the post-September 11 economic climate they're somewhat dubious. But commercial radio is still vulnerable: it reaches almost everyone but offers few choices in any one place. "The process of making radio is ripe for change," says Chance Patterson, XM's vice president of corporate affairs. "As cable was to broadcast television, we want to be the same thing to radio."

The technology is pretty impressive. XM launched its satellites from a converted oceangoing oil-drilling platform near the equator, where it takes less energy to get to space. Two satellites--named Rock and Roll--now float in geostationary orbit at fixed spots 22,000 miles above the earth. They broadcast in the S-band rather than the Ku-band used by satellite-TV services. That means they can hit a moving car, and there's no "rain fade"--loss of signal due to weather. Tall buildings are still a problem, so the companies use repeaters, refrigerator-size boxes of electronics that strengthen and retransmit the signal. XM thought it would need 1,500 of these nationwide; it turns out it needs fewer than 900 (Washington has a few; New York has dozens). Sirius, on the other hand, has fewer than 100 repeaters nationwide, because its three satellites float in a different orbit, dancing a geosynchronous figure eight over North America and pointing down at more cities.

XM and Sirius have turned to well-known consumer-electronics companies to make the receivers. Sony and Panasonic, among others, are building "head units" for both companies. The radios look normal, though the antennas are squat little assemblies that resemble shark fins or tiny tugboat smokestacks. And XM, at least, sounds pretty good. "Sound quality's more a function of the speakers and the amplifier," Snyder says. "But we get better dynamic range and frequency response than FM." Whatever that means, I did think the music sounded crisper, as though it came from a CD. Being able to see the artist and song title on the radio display was a nice feature--and, one hopes, not an dangerous distraction while driving. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.