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Satellite radio gives you a choice of 150+ channels, all with good coverage almost everywhere in the US and usually with no commercials.

A monthly fee as low as $10 gets you access to all of this.

If you spend time in your car, and aren't satisfied with your present range of stations, or their coverage, this could be a good choice.

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Sirius and XM Satellite Radio Service

A marvelous - and ad free - improvement on old fashioned radio service


Small devices like XM Radio's Delphi Skyfi2 unit or their even smaller Roady2 unit receive satellite radio signals and then rebroadcast them into your car's stereo system.

The devices can also be docked into free-standing players, boomboxes, and connected to your home's audio system.

Part 1 of a 2 part series - part 2 reviews and compares the two different providers of satellite radio service and helps you choose which service - and which radio equipment - would be best for you.



Satellite radio gives you an overwhelming choice of more than 150 radio channels, most with no commercials, and broad coverage all over the US.

Two similar services - XM Radio and Sirius - offer monthly subscriptions for as little as $10/month, with extra receivers added for only $7/month.

The units cost as little as $50 each and are easy to operate and the chances are at least one or two of the 150+ channels will soon be on your 'must listen to' list.

Why Get Satellite Radio

Many of us have become increasingly disillusioned with regular broadcast radio.  The programming is not always appealing, and the advertising content can sometimes reach almost 20 minutes out of every hour, leaving very little for the music, talk, or news we seek.

Even if you do have a favorite station or two, chances are their coverage isn't always the greatest, with reception often poor quality.  And if you're traveling out of town, you're for sure out of range.

When you're seeking special information such as traffic or weather reports, you want access to this information immediately, not the next time it is provided as part of a regular station's programming, maybe 5 - 10 minutes later.

Satellite radio sets out to address all these limitations, and to give you more choices, better coverage, better signal, more 'extra' services, and fewer (usually no) commercials.

Not only does satellite radio set out to offer these service improvements, but it spectacularly succeeds.  A survey of Travel Insider readers revealed an extraordinary almost 100% 'extremely or very satisfied' rating for their satellite radio experience.

There are two service providers in the US - XM Radio and Sirius.  The rest of this article discusses satellite radio in general, and the second part of this two part series will discuss the differences between XM Radio and Sirius, and talk about the features to look for in different satellite radio receivers, to help you choose which is the better service for you.

How Satellite Radio Works

If you have satellite television like Directv service at present, you probably know all about how complicated and critical it is to align your dish exactly at the satellite, and how service can deteriorate in the rain, and, in general, you doubtless appreciate that satellite television is not without its problems.

Good news - satellite radio is enormously simpler.  For example, you don't need to align your antenna in a specific direction, and the antenna isn't a large dish that would look strange on the roof of your car, but rather a small little thing about the size of a hotel bar of soap that magnetically attaches to your car roof.

After the antenna, the next item you need is a receiver.  And this is also small and simple.  Units can be as small as a pack of cards, and are very easy to use, with helpful menu prompting on (often large) LCD screens.

Lastly, you need a way to hear the radio channels you're receiving.  For in car use, there are several ways you can do this - choose which is easiest for you.

The easiest way is often to set the satellite receiver to rebroadcast its signals on an empty FM frequency and simply tune your car radio to receive the satellite signal that way.  Most receivers also have a cassette player adapter - this can potentially give you better quality sound than rebroadcasting the signal on FM - and if you have the ability to accept a line-in feed into your car's entertainment system, you can usually feed directly from the receiver into the car system that way, too.

You can also have an auto electrician directly wire the satellite radio output into the antenna feed into your car radio.

How the service is sold and controlled

Each receiver has a unique serial number electronically built into it.  When you sign up for service, you tell the service provider the serial number of the receiver you want to use, and they key this into their database so as to allow your receiver to decode their signals.  Within about 15 minutes of requesting service, the activation code to your radio has been transmitted and received, and you're then able to receive service.

If you have two receivers, you'll need to pay for both receivers - both companies offer discounted rates for multiple receivers.

If you replace your receiver with a different receiver, you'll have to ask the satellite company to switch the serial number in their database (this will probably cost you a few dollars to get them to make the change).

So access is sold and controlled by receiver ID, which is why the satellite service providers have encouraged the receiver manufacturers to develop multi-purpose receivers which can be moved from place to place, enabling you to get more value from a single receiver.

Not just for your car

The satellite service providers are keen to make their service as appealing as possible, and so have encouraged the receiver manufacturers to develop modular receivers than can be moved from car to home audio system to boom-box, or even simply from car to car.

Because you have to pay for every receiver you own and have activated, this enables you to get broader use from each receiver.

Clever Extra Features and Services

Different people convert to satellite radio for different reasons.  High quality sound, available everywhere, a wide range of music programming choices, and generally free of commercials, are the obvious main reasons for most of us.

But there's lots more to like about satellite radio than just this.

Song Details

How often have you tuned in to a radio station and thought 'I wonder what that song/who the artist is?'.  But, of course, inevitably you miss the information because by the time it is announced (if at all) you've tuned away, left the car, or are in some other way busy and distracted.

With the satellite radio, you can simply glance at its display and most of the time it will be telling you details about the song and the performers.  Instant answer!

Stock Quotes and Game Scores

XM can also stream selected stock quotes and/or game scores along the bottom of the display.

Pause or Play Tracks Again

Another clever option is the ability for some receiver models to save a program for you to play back later, similar to how Tivo works with television.  You can in effect 'pause' the music and then start it again later.  You can also jump back to earlier songs to replay them if you wish.

Note that different model radios offer different amounts of memory for this feature, and most radios don't yet have this option at all.

Traffic and Weather

Both services offer local traffic coverage in major metro areas around the US.  XM has dedicated channels, one per area served, but Sirius shares some channels between two cities, meaning half the time you're waiting and listening to irrelevant information before your city's turn comes around.

Both services also provide local weather reports and forecasts, generally for the same areas they offer traffic reports.

Favorite Song Alerts

In many cases, you can program your receiver so it will be continually scanning all channels for up to (about) twenty of your favorite artists and songs.  If it detects one being played on any channel, it will alert you, giving you the option to jump over to the other channel to listen to the song/artist.

In reality this is a feature that few people will bother to use, but some people might find it useful.

Fewer DJs

The good news is that most of the music channels are free of commercials.  But these channels are often free of announcers, too, and may have nothing more than nonstop music tracks, with an occasional channel identification spot stuck in between a couple of tracks.

Some people (myself included) enjoy listening to a good dj or announcer who can add interesting commentary to the music he is playing, whereas others just want the music and nothing interfering with it.

Because the receivers will typically show details of each track as it plays the music, you can still find out what you're listening to, simply by looking at the display (not always a wise thing to do while driving, of course!).

Satellite radio via internet too

Once you've signed up for service with either of the two providers, you can access most of their programming through their internet site as well as via your radio.

This means if you're at your computer (and with a faster than dialup connection) you can have satellite radio service streaming through your internet line and out your computer speakers just as conveniently as via your satellite receiver.

This is particularly helpful if you can't otherwise get good satellite signal inside your home or office.

Signal Availability and Quality

The good news?  Satellite radio signals can be received over just about the entire continental US, with some signal spillage up into Canada, down into Mexico, and off-shore a distance as well.

The bad news?  Unlike regular radio signals, satellite radio signals don't penetrate through things very well.  Your antenna needs to have close to an unobstructed line of sight to where the satellite is in the sky - generally to the south, and more so the further north you go; and also to the east if you're in the west of the country or to the east if you're in the west of the country.

This is usually not a problem when driving your car.  You mount the matchbox sized antenna on your car roof and most of the time it has a good view of the sky.  Exceptions can exist if driving through tunnels, or in urban canyons with tall buildings on either side of you obliterating a view of much of the sky.  Any black spots you might encounter while driving typically only last for a few seconds before you've driven on out of the poor signal area, so are seldom a problem.

A more notable exception is if you're trying to use your satellite radio inside a building.  If you can get its antenna so that it has a good view outside the house to where the satellite(s) is/are likely to be, then you'll have no problems, but if this is not possible, you might find you can not get a usable signal inside the house.

Antennas can be remotely mounted and then relay/retransmit signal into your house.  But if you're having problems getting a signal inside, perhaps the easier solution is simply to use the internet streamed alternate to the broadcast signal and play your satellite radio service through your computer.

Unlike regular radio, and due to its digital transmission, satellite radio tends to either give a perfect signal or no signal at all.  There aren't large areas of 'marginal' signal where you get poor quality sound, it is more an all or nothing experience.

The History of Satellite Radio

Satellite radio was first suggested back in 1992, when the FCC allocated a band of frequencies in the 'S band' (around 2.3 GHz) to be used for this type of broadcasting - what was formally described as 'Digital Audio Radio Service'.

Four companies applied for licenses to use these frequencies, and the FCC eventually awarded two licences; one to CD Radio, now known as Sirius, and the other to American Mobile Radio, now known as XM Radio.  Each company paid over $80 million to get permission to use these frequencies.

XM Radio was the first to start service, on 12 November, 2001.  Sirius started broadcasting on 1 July, 2002.


Should you get satellite radio?  If you spend any amount of time in your car, then almost certainly, yes you should.  Travel Insider readers report an extraordinarily high level of delight with their satellite radio service experiences.

The service is easy to use, and inexpensive.  Try it yourself, and your only regret will probably be like mine - a wish that I'd got satellite radio service sooner!

Read more in Part 2

In Part 2 we compare the two competing Satellite radio services - XM Radio and Sirius - to help you choose which service is best for you, and talk about the different types of receivers to use to get satellite radio service.

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Originally published 18 Nov 2005, last update 21 Jul 2020

You may freely reproduce or distribute this article for noncommercial purposes as long as you give credit to me as original writer.

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