What is satellite radio?

The simplest way to understand satellite radio is by making a comparison to satellite television. Just like with satellite TV, satellite radio provides a wide range of radio programming that’s not currently available in over-the-air radio, technically known as terrestrial radio.

Satellite radio has actually been around for many years, but until recently hadn’t been readily available to the average consumer. A variety of companies provided satellite radio programming that was beamed to a land-based radio station and then broadcast to their listeners. This included music programs, talk programs, and news. But, if you were out of range of that radio station you wouldn’t be able to hear the program.

In 1992, the Federal Communications Commission allocated a spectrum for satellite radio targeted for the consumer. Four companies submitted applications to provide satellite radio broadcasts in the United States and in 1997 the FCC gave approval to Sirius and XM.

Like with many technologies it took a while for satellite radio to catch on, but within a couple of years more and more consumers had taken the leap to satellite radio. Industry estimates say that by 2010, there will be more than 20 million households in the United States that will be satellite radio subscribers.

There are two satellite radio companies that are licensed by the Federal Communications Commission to provide consumer satellite radio in the United States. Those companies are XM and Sirius. Satellite radio is available through a subscription with either of the satellite radio companies. You pay a monthly fee and have access to all the satellite programming that company provides.

Sirius and XM each provide more than 100 channels of programming as part of the subscription. Like with cable or satellite TV you can also get some premium channels that will require paying an additional fee.

As with satellite TV, the main advantage with satellite radio is the variety of programming available to consumers. The type of programming is much more diverse than is currently available through terrestrial radio. Regular radio stations try to appeal to the greatest number of people, so consequently much of the programming on these stations is similar. Because the over-the-air stations rely on advertising dollars for their income they have to attract a large number of listeners.

With satellite radio though, the companies generate a large portion of their income from subscription fees. This way they can offer content that is much more specialized. Just like with land-based radio stations, you’ll find satellite radio channels that specialize in oldies, adult contemporary, country, or rock music. There are talk and news formats as well. However, you’ll also find much more specialized programming. You’ll find channels that play only blues, hip hop, or heavy metal.

And within those categories, you’ll find some channels that are even more specialized. As an example, if you like oldies, but only like oldies from the 1970s, you’ll find a channel that only plays 70s music. If the 80s are more your taste, there are channels that only play music from the 1980s. If you’re a fan of big band music, tune in the channel that plays the 1940s hits.

The categories of programming in satellite radio are seemingly limitless. There’s programming for nearly every taste and every age group, from kids to seniors. There are talk shows no matter what your political bent. Both XM and Sirius provide specialized channels for those in the trucking industry. You’ll also find a lot of sports channels from both satellite companies.

A huge advantage for most people is that many of the channels are commercial-free. If you hate hearing your music interrupted by advertising then you’ll want to consider satellite radio. Not all the channels are commercial-free, but there are enough that are that you’ll be able to listen for hours without hearing a single commercial. You can get in your car in San Diego and turn on your favorite channel and listen to music while you drive all the way to Boston without hearing commercials.

Satellite radio is relatively inexpensive as well. For less than the cost of one CD you can purchase an entire month’s worth of programming with a wide range of available channels. Just like with satellite or cable TV there are some premium channels that will add to you subscription cost. But just like with subscription TV you can purchase the basic package without the premiums and enjoy more than 100 different radio stations.

If you’re thinking that you need to attach a pizza-sized dish to the top of your car, you can rest easy. Installing satellite radio is easier than you think. Many new cars already come satellite ready and it’s just a matter of signing up for the service. There are even many after-market car stereo systems that are satellite radio-equipped. Also, there is a wide range of portable satellite radios that you can move from your home to your car, to your office, or any place you happen to be going.

If each member of your family wants their own radio you’ll to have to pay an extra fee for each of those radios. You don’t have to pay the full subscription price for additional radios, but the monthly cost can add up if you’ve got multiple family members.

The satellite radio isn’t perfect. If you live in an urban area there might be some nedead spots where you lose the signal from the satellite. The satellite radio companies have installed ground-based repeaters that broadcast the signal to try and compensate for that possible loss. You also don’t hear any local programming on satellite radio. You’ll still have to get your local news from one of your local terrestrial stations. Both XM and Sirius have some channels that broadcast traffic and weather in some larger markets, but if you don’t live in one of those, you’ll have to tune to a local channel for traffic and weather reports.

All in all, satellite radio is a good option if you’re tired of your local radio stations, especially if your taste in music runs outside the mainstream. Satellite radio looks like it’s here to stay and is likely to offer additional programming in the future.

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