Satellite Radio Faces Many Obstacles

Now that satellite radio services XM Radio and Sirius Radio have their "birds" in position, they are encountering a slew of unexpected roadblocks here on earth. Among the problems: loss of signal in tunnels and urban canyons, interference with wireless communications, and a lighting technology that emits strong radio waves close to the broadcasters' assigned bands.

The satellite services have discovered that drivers lose their signals when they enter tunnels or when driving among tall buildings. To overcome this, XM and Sirius plan to deploy terrestrial "repeaters," local transmitters that would reinforce the radio signals. The repeaters would be mounted on buildings or on structures like cell-phone towers. The companies' original request to the Federal Communications Commission was for a few hundred repeaters; that has grown to over 1000, according to a news item appearing on an Internet newsgroup devoted to broadcast industry developments and FCC rulings.

The National Association of Broadcasters has lodged a protest with the agency over the plan. Terrestrial repeaters are "a crutch for a technology that is not up to the task of providing the seamless, mobile coverage promised by proponents," NAB president Eddie Fritts told the FCC. The NAB fears that the deployment of repeaters will turn satellite services into locally operated terrestrial services, competing with established radio stations. "The time for subterfuge by XM Radio and Sirius Radio is over," Fritts stated. "These companies must come clean with regulators and the American people on their true intentions for making satellite radio a viable business."

According to the news report, XM and Sirius have asked the FCC for rules clarification that would allow them to carry local programming, just as direct broadcast satellite operators DirecTV and EchoStar last year won the right to retransmit local stations, a practice known in the broadcasting industry as "local into local." Plans to carry local programming would appear to be at odds with the satellite companies' original model of offering unified services that would cover all of North America. The NAB has asked for assurance that the repeaters will retransmit only "the complete signal from the primary station, [ie the satellites] intended for the consumer satellite receivers," and not the signals of any local stations. Fritts stated that allowing the services to expand beyond their original business model would make a "mockery of FCC rules and regulations."

Complaints by the NAB are only the beginning of trouble for the startups. At least two major telecommunications companies, AT&T Wireless, Inc. and BellSouth Corporation, have also complained about the repeaters, saying they will interfere with wireless communications, according to a report in the August 24 edition of the Washington Post. Both companies use the "Wireless Communications Service" (WCS) band for cellular telephone networks. Rosy statements by executives of the satellite radio industry during the development phase may have glossed over technical problems that their engineers were aware of, according to some observers.

Further complicating the launch of the XM and Sirius services, slated for this fall, is another interference wrangle, this one with Rockville, MD–based Fusion Lighting, Inc., a maker of ultra-bright energy-efficient light bulbs. Fusion's bulbs contain a gaseous sulfur compound that glows when energized by microwaves, yielding a light 100 times brighter than a 100W incandescent bulb for the same energy expenditure. They also emit strong radio frequency interference in a part of the spectrum near satellite radio's.

The technology has been endorsed by the US Department of Energy and approved for use along interstate highways, a target area for satellite radio. Experiments have indicated that drivers within a mile of the bulbs could have their satellite radio programming jammed by the interference. Sirius Satellite Radio, Inc. and XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc., the satellite services' parent companies, have asked the FCC to require Fusion to redesign its products to block the interference. Ten months ago, the agency mediated discussions among the three, without resolving the problem. An engineering test conducted in early November established beyond a doubt that Fusion lighting would interfere with satellite radio.

After the tests, the FCC suggested that Fusion reduce emissions by 85%. XM and Sirius protested, and Fusion responded by offering to reduce interference by 95%, by shielding microwave generators and by installing metal reflectors and coated glass over bulbs. The satellite services, which paid more than $80 million each to launch their businesses, want to see emissions reduced to 99.9% below the current level. Fusion's technology has also been questioned by wireless companies, and the Coast Guard requested that the FCC issue warnings to marinas and boat owners that the bulbs could cause radio problems. The agency likely won't rule on Fusion's RF emissions until some time next year.