Tech and Culture

Is satellite radio really the ultimate in radio broadcasting?

I have been using XM Satellite Radio for about the last month or so. I have to say that it is actually a giant leap forward in radio programming, and I am addicted to its programming. The fact that I can easily tune into any kind of music or talk radio programming is very enticing. Not to mention the commercial free music. The hardware is also revolutionary, and I use a receiver that works in my car, home, as well as in my pocket. Satellite radio is here to stay. Bye bye regular FM.

Or not?

Is satellite broadcasting the ultimate in “national area” digital transmission? I can count some things that satellite radio lacks at present:

1. There is no way to send user statistics back to XM Radio to help them calculate demand for a particular genre.
2. It is non-interactive.
3. I still cannot listen to anything on demand.
4. The number of channels is strictly limited in proportion with the broadcast quality. There is little room for expansion unless a new codec comes out.
5. Any technological changes/innovation would result in making the current breed of receivers obsolete (read inability to update firmware).
6. It is still not global, and is fairly expensive to deploy, although the costs diminish once the systems are in place.
7. Satellite transmission is not enough. There are terrestrial repeaters throughout the nation that broadcast the digital channels to crowded urban areas, i.e., a generous land based infrastructure is still required to provide coverage.

There are many more drawbacks of this technology. In a way, satellite radio companies (2 at this time – XM and Sirius) have deployed a terrestrial network not unlike a mobile communications company. This is because each of these repeaters has only a limited range and uses a freuquency not very far away from those used for cellular communications.

Now, when we talk about anything digital, the first thing that comes to the mind is the Internet. It is the world’s biggest digital network that reaches almost every point on Earth. I, for one, believe that the Internet is the best content delivery mechanism for anything digital.

Could Internet radio ever take over satellite radio? I believe the answer is yes. The Internet is duplex, and has the potential to provide many more services than just radio, for example. The way I look at it, Satellite radio is just a transitionary phase from FM to nearly pervasive digital radio based on the Internet. Already, there are companies with plans to blanket the nation with high speed wireless networks that connect to the Internet. All that is needed is a “peaceful” way to establish internetwork traffic and tariffs.

From a content provider’s view, I could focus solely on content rather than the underlying infrastructure if I use the Internet as a delivery vehicle. This also opens up the business so that there are more competitors, and better choice for the consumer. In fact, Internet radio obliterates almost every drawback I enumerated earlier. But, I believe it is still quite far away, and until then I am going to enjoy my XM Satellite Radio!

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