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Voices From the Heavens

XM Satellite Radio Delivers a Variety of Choices With Almost Flawless Reception

November 01, 2001|DAVID COLKER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The future of radio has arrived. But was it worth waiting for? And paying for?

Satellite pay radio, beamed straight from space to your car or home, marks the first major advance in radio signal delivery since the introduction of FM in the 1930s. Last month, after much hype and numerous delays, XM Satellite Radio began rolling out its 100-channel service for $9.99 a month (plus about $225 or moreand up for a receiver) to several cities, including Los Angeles.

Satellite radio promises a huge variety of music, news, sports, talk and comedy channels to subscribers in an uninterrupted stream that can be picked up, static-free, coast to coast. XM's promotions suggest you can travel through all kinds of urban and remote terrains--even those where regular car radios orand mobilecell phones falter--and not lose the signal.

But enough of hype and promises. It was time for space radio to meet the Earth-bound freeways, city streets and back-country roads of Southern California. For 24 hours we took XM on a real-world trial over hundreds of miles of byways in Los Angeles, Orange and Riverside counties to test reception and sample all 100 channels.

XM, which spent in excess of $1 billion to put its satellites in orbit, create programming for its original channels (others come from a variety of sources, including the BBC, ESPN and MTV) and launch its service, has the field to itself for the time being. Competitor Sirius Satellite Radio was supposed to be available by now but has run into stumbling blocks--its chief executive CEO resigned in October and the company has not announced its revised launch date.

Reception

XM gets an A-. The system performed admirably on a technical level in the vast majority of the tested locales, even where AM/FM radio reception and cell phone operation were problematic. Signal interruptions were generally minor.

The satellite service works on a line-of-sight basis. As long as the car-or home-installed antenna can "see" the signal from one of XM's two satellites without being blocked by a building, tunnel, mountain or other obstacle, it should be received without problem. In several urban areas where skyscrapers and other structures can block the signal, the company has installed repeaters.

For the trial, we used a Pioneer GEX-FM903XM unit that retails for about $250. It operates in conjunction with the installed AM/FM radio and receives the satellite signals through a short, stubby antenna that attaches magnetically to the car roof.

Leaving Pioneer's facility in Long Beach, we traveled down the 405 Ffreeway with Beethoven's Fifth blasting from one of the XM's four classical channels. The signal was not fazed by most overpasses until an especially wide one on the Lakewood exit. Then the radio went silent and a "NoO SignalIGNAL" warning came up on the receiver's digital readout. tThe interruption lasted a few seconds.

More problematic was a tunnel near the Long Beach Airport where the signal quit about a quarter of the way in and stayed off almost until the car reemerged.

Heading into Orange County, XM worked flawlessly among the tall buildings in Costa Mesa, along mountainous Laguna Canyon Road and in the beach communities along Pacific Coast Highway where traditional radio and cell phone reception can beis spotty.

Other cell phone problem zones where XM had no trouble: oOn the 91 Ffreeway into Riverside County and on the 210 Ffreeway through the San Fernando Valley. Along Ventura Boulevard in the Valley the signal quit a couple of times very briefly when passing tall buildings in Encino.

Going over the hill to Hollywood on Laurel Canyon Boulevard was trouble-free, but on Hollywood Boulevard near famed the intersection at Vine Street there were a couple of quick outages.

Downtown is where XM really shined. Neither the skyscrapers nor the 2nd Street or 3rd Street tunnelss blocked the signal a bit. And it played continuously through the four tunnels of the northbound Pasadena Ffreeway except for one brief hiccup at the end of the first tunnel. tunnel #1. ??WHERE??

Programming

One major drawback of satellite radio is that it carries no local programming, so you'll have to switch over to AM/FM for regional news, sports, weather and traffic.

And although you'll be paying for XM, it's not a haven from advertising. Nearly two-thirds of XM's channels carry commercials.

Rock/Pop: In this era of corporate control of major broadcast stations and rigid playlists, satellite radio's multi-channel approach offers the chance for iconoclastic rock radio announcers infused with a love of the music to reemerge. But there are few signs the door is open to this at XM, where some of the channels in this category are feeds from established radio stations such as KIIS-FM in L.A. and WLTW-FM in New York.

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