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Broader choice in satellite radio

Ford will put Sirius receivers in many models in 2003, raising the stakes against XM.

November 13, 2002|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Fans of satellite radio, limited to a single provider for the first half of the year, finally have a serious second contender to consider. Satellite broadcaster Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. has signed a deal for Ford Motor Co. -- an investor in the firm -- to begin offering Sirius-receiving radios in many of its cars in 2003.

That's good news for those who think competition is a good thing, as New York-based Sirius has been losing money and didn't launch its nationwide service until July, almost seven months after competitor XM Satellite Radio went on the air.

But with the announcement that certain models of Ford and the automaker's Lincoln, Mercury, Aston Martin, Jaguar, Volvo and Land Rover brands will offer Sirius radios exclusively beginning in January, the broadcaster's future seems more settled.

Sirius also has exclusive agreements with BMW, DaimlerChrysler and Mazda and non- exclusive pacts with Nissan, Porsche and Volkswagen in which the automakers let consumers decide which satellite-ready radio they want.

XM and Sirius broadcast on different frequencies with different signal encryption, making it difficult and expensive to design a radio to receive both. XM, backed by General Motors Corp. and Honda Motor Co., has its own deals.

We've reviewed satellite radio -- XM was the only provider at the time (Highway 1, April 3) -- and generally liked it.

But there were drawbacks. Some XM stations share programming, so it's possible to hear the same music selections, or the same comedy routines, on different stations at different times of the day if you are channel surfing. And XM sells advertising on many of its music channels.

Sirius shares all of the good things about satellite radio and says it provides better reception and higher-quality broadcast sound than its competitor (a lot of that, or course, is in the ear -- and audio equipment -- of the listener). Sirius also boasts that its 60 music channels are commercial free (each company offers 100 channels, 60 with music and 40 with talk, news and entertainment programming).

The improved sound comes from a system that reallocates bandwidth among channels as content demands -- for example, sending more signal to channels playing music while taking signal away from channels playing talk. Sirius says the difference in sound from the greater bandwidth is akin to the difference between music on cassette tape and CDs.

The improved signal strength comes from the special positioning of Sirius' three broadcast satellites, which beam their signals from directly overhead in most of the United States.

XM's satellites sit lower on the horizon and can sometimes be blocked by tall structures, mountain peaks and even tall trees. Of course, tunnels and overpasses can block any satellite signal.

But a subscription to Sirius costs more, $12.95 a month versus $9.99 for XM. The company insists that its sound, reception and commercial-free music channels are worth the $2.96 monthly difference.

(Satellite-ready radios and installation cost about the same for either system, and if added to a car rather than purchased as an installed option in a new vehicle can range from $200 to more than $800.)

The big benefits of satellite, other than the ability to listen to the same programming all across the country, are variety and freedom from the annoying chatter that accompanies most commercial radio programming.

Original programming from Sirius and XM follows the same paths, with something for just about every imaginable taste in music, talk, variety and sports. Still, it's nice that we can choose. Now, if only someone would figure out how to build an affordable car stereo that would receive either, instead of one or the other.

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