It's happened to almost everyone driving on a long trip. They realize they forgot their CDs and the FM band isn't picking up any music. It sounds as though they're in for a very quiet trip right? Wrong.
XM signals beamed from satellites thousands of miles above the Earth allow people to hear music from all across the globe.
Traditional radio broadcasters are starting to see their shares of the market get a little smaller with the advent of Internet and satellite radio systems. Even though Internet radio lacks high quality, it offers a lot more channels. Better yet is the CD-quality sound from XM that has little to no commercial interference.
"The biggest upside for the listener is two-fold," telecommunications professor Dom Caristi said. "One, you get nationwide service, and you can listen to one format without losing the signal at all (on long trips). The second thing is the variety of choices you have."
The downside is the cost of the equipment used to pick up XM. Currently the hardware runs from $200 to $1,000 for the receiver and antennae. Then there is the monthly charge of $9.95 from XM and $12.95 from Sirius. It's like buying cable for your car.
Standard radio signals usually only travel about 40 miles from their sources, and on long trips, listeners are limited to whatever is locally available. Even for people who live in urban areas, satellite ground repeaters are in place to help against lost signal.
"If you live in a rural area and you get no ESPN radio, and you are a sport's junkie and you want ESPN radio, then it might be well worth it to subscribe to a satellite service," Caristi said.
Right now, "free" satellite radio is available on digital cable and satellite systems as an extra premium on top of the television service. Many already have access to many channels which might weaken the market for XM and Sirius radio networks.
Both companies have made agreements with stereo and car manufacturers to include the hardware in their designs.
XM has partnered with Pioneer, Alpine, Clarion, Delphi Delco, Sony, Motorola, General Motors and Honda.
Sirius has reached agreements with Sanyo, Pioneer, Panasonic, Kenwood, Jensen, Clarion, Alpine, Ford, DaimlerChrysler, BMW, Mercedes, Mazda, Jaguar and Volvo. These receivers will also display the song title and the artist's name.
While the technology is just now emerging for public use, the idea is almost 10 years old. In 1992 the Federal Communications Commission allocated the "S" band (2.3 GHz) for national broadcasting of satellite-based Digital Audio Radio Service. Each of the two current U.S. companies paid more than $80 million to use the S-band space.
XM has filed with the FCC to request a patent to allow it to deliver local programming. In other words, there would be a whole new network of local radio stations on this new band, which would really take the business from FM and AM broadcasters. The ground transmitters being used as boosters for the satellite signals make this possible.
"I don't think broadcasters were afraid to fight XM on the terms that it was originally created (a purely non-local satellite service)," Caristi said. "Now with this new possibility, their concern is that XM will try to muscle in on their home turf."
Aside from XM and Sirius there is WorldSpace. While the company doesn't broadcast in the United States, it is already operating in Africa and Asia with South American broadcasting to start soon. The company's satellites are AfriStar and AsiaStar. They launched in October 1998 and March 2000 respectively.
Each satellite, however, only carries 40 channels while the other two companies carry 100. And unlike the U.S. companies, WorldSpace works on the L-band spectrum.
The two larger services have a multitude of channels. For instance, XM has 10 rock channels, six urban channels, six jazz/blues channels, 15 hits channels, six country channels, 12 news channels, five sports channels (including an all NASCAR channel), 10 talk channels and 30 other miscellaneous broadcasts.
It's supposed to be regulated by the FCC because it uses the airwaves, but there are ways around it. For example, HBO beams their signal via satellite to cable companies and their content is sometimes questionable.
"The FCC has the authority to regulate XM like other broadcast facilities," Caristi said. "But whether it will or not is not certain at this point."