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      Television on Board

Chuck Husick: Techno-Talk, July 2002 BoatUS Magazine - Updated October 2008 -

XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio

What, another radio? Would you add another radio to your boat if it could bring you 100 channels of digitally encoded audio, 60 of them with no commercials, regardless of where in the continental U.S. you go boating? Would you pay a monthly subscription fee of $10-$13 for superior audio quality, commercial-free music and a clear, static and distortion-free signal, even if you boat up to about 200 miles offshore.

Two companies, XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio, offer these two competing services. However they merged in July 2008 to form a single company, Sirius XM Radio. Designed primarily to serve the mobile land market, their signals are broadcast directly from the satellites to your receiver. The merged company continues to use different but equally effective methods to deliver signals to the user. The merger agreement also included a commitment for extension of coverage to offer service for Puerto Rico, an area not formerly covered (with the possibility that the USVI will also be within the extended coverage area).

XM uses two very large Boeing geostationary satellites (named Rock and Roll) orbiting 23,000 miles above the Equator and positioned to provide coverage of the continent from coast to coast and beyond. Sirius uses three satellites orbiting in a figure-eight pattern at an altitude of 29,000 miles with continuous coverage assured by having two of the satellites visible at all times. Plans have been announced for the addition of a geostationary satellite carrying the Sirius program content.

Your interest in having either of these new entertainment / information services on your boat will likely depend on the local availability of the off-the-air programming you like to hear. The wider your cruising range, the more likely you are to want one of these geographically unrestricted systems. Those who cruise long distances along and offshore from the coasts will likely consider satellite radio a must have.

Using either system is simpler than tuning in to a local AM or FM station. Blocks of channel numbers are assigned to different content: music, news, sports, comedy, talk and variety. In both services the largest content group, music, is divided into categories including classical, country, rock, R&B, urban, jazz & blues, dance, variety, Latin etc. The receiver displays the name of the artist, song title, channel name and number. Overall, the program organization is like that used for cable or satellite TV.

Sending 100 channels of high quality audio within the available signal space requires the use of very sophisticated digital encoding, broadly based on the MP3 technology used to compress audio for portable music players. While each satellite radio provider uses different methods of quality control for their sound, we doubt that the listener will be able to detect the difference between the two systems.

Those of us who are not on our boats often enough to justify a fixed receiver can use a plug-in receiver in a vehicle or at home when not on the boat. These receivers translate the satellite signal into a FM signal that plays through your existing FM radio and provides FM quality sound. Some also provide audio signals that can connect directly to your existing amplifier and yield CD quality or better sound. Of course, what you hear from your boat's speakers will depend only in part on the type of satellite receiver you use; the loudspeakers are the critical link in any audio system.

The Sirius XM system can provide close to real-time weather information using a special receiver than can be integrated with a boat’s chartplotter. Depending on the selected subscription and the receiver the audio portion of the transmission can be routed to the boat’s entertainment system.

Regardless of the technical niceties of either system, rushing out to equip with this new gear will depend upon how appealing the programming is. The fact that much of the music is totally commercial-free may be a big selling point for some listeners. A number of receiver types are available including portables, car kits that work with the existing car radio and stand-alone receiver systems. Receiver prices range from less than $50 to about $300, for a complete kit, including the necessary antenna. If your boating is primarily close to shore and in populated areas you may find the Sirius Backseat TV receiver interesting, it receives the audio channels and in addition kid’s programs on Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network. Intended for viewing by children riding in the backseat it might also be useful when the family is on the boat and the weather justifies the kid’s desire to be inside.

© Copyright BoatUS Magazine 2002

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