Sirius Digital Radio Satellite Launches This Week

A new era in radio will begin on November 30, when a rocket lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan carrying a commercial digital radio transponder to a geosynchronous orbit over North America. The satellite, which belongs to Sirius Satellite Radio, will eventually beam as many as 100 stations providing "CD-quality" sound to listeners throughout the continent.

Mobile audio is the primary market for the new service, with rural listeners considered a secondary market. Automakers Ford, DaimlerChrysler, and BMW have already signed on with Sirius, and will make satellite receivers available as optional equipment in new cars beginning in 2001. "We've had contact from virtually every automaker in the world," said Chris Ols, a program manager for Sirius satellite receiver development at Delphi Delco Electronics in Kokomo, Indiana. "We expect to see some penetration into specific vehicle platforms by the end of next year." The vast majority of radio listening takes place in cars, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.

Other automakers, such as Honda and General Motors, have aligned themselves with Washington, DC-based XM Radio, a competing digital satellite radio company that recently received a $50 million investment from direct broadcast satellite service DirecTV. News services including National Public Radio, USA Today, BBC World Service, and the Associated Press have announced that they will provide feeds to one or both of the satellite radio startups.

Receivers for new cars, as well as for aftermarket installation, are being designed and built by Alpine, Panasonic, Audiovox, Clarion, Kenwood, Fujitsu, Mitsubishi Electric, Visteon, and Delphi Delco—with chipsets supplied by NEC, ST Microelectronics, and Lucent Technologies. Dan Garretson, senior automotive analyst at Forrester Research Inc., believes that digital satellite radio will expand the autosound market. "We think it's going to be one of the drivers toward the adoption of more electronic entertainment in vehicles," Garretson said. Satellite receivers are envisioned by manufacturers as complementing rather than competing with other car audio equipment, such as CD changers.

Although many observers have compared digital satellite radio to satellite TV, engineers are quick to point out that there are many more obstacles to retrieving clear signals in moving vehicles. "People trying to reach a satellite television signal are stationary. Here, you're trying to get 2.3 gigahertz into a moving vehicle and turn it into a usable signal," said Tracy Stanyer, vice president of OEM alliances at Sirius. "You've got new technology from end to end," said Delphi Delco's Chris Ols, emphasizing the risks being taken by engineers and investors alike. "The satellites, broadcast studios, and chip sets are all new."

The key to clear reception is the proper design of vehicle-mounted antennas, engineers say. Toward that end, they are developing a two-antenna system, with one directed at the satellite and the other receiving signals from terrestrial repeaters, of which Sirius will have about 150. XM Radio will deploy about 1500 ground-based repeaters because its satellite will be lower on the horizon.

Both Sirius and XM Radio have discussed making their systems compatible, but that does not appear to be the direction they are headed at present. Dearborn, Michigan-based Visteon Corporation has announced that it may put on a demonstration of the Sirius system at the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. XM Radio plans to begin its broadcast service in summer of 2001.