Satellite Radio: A Brief Introduction
Somewhere way up in the sky there are a series of satellites that are beaming down golden rays of audio goodness. The world of Satellite radio has three main service providers, though North America only receives coverage from two of those players. How exactly do these services work, and what are the technologies in place behind them? These questions are ones that most people would not think to ask, but to the geeky underclass they are inherently interesting and absolutely captivating.
It all started when a series of technologies were set in place that would eventually allow for satellites to be used as radio transmitters. Standard radio towers can broadcast around 35-40 miles before their service starts to become crackled and staticky, yet you could drive across the country listening to the same satellite radio station. In fact, that’s the entire purpose of satellite radio- not to encourage the masses to go on cross-country road trips, but rather to provide seamless and continual radio coverage to individuals who don’t mind paying a small premium for the service. The pricing, which works out to be right around $20 a month, is very competitive and definitely makes the service competitive.
So how does Satellite radio work anyway? First, we need to learn a little bit about space.
The Technology Behind Satellite Radio
Just as you can see all the stars in the sky on a clear night those stars can also see you. In it this principle of line of sight (LOS) in which satellites are able to deliver billions of bits of information, some in the form of audio, video, perhaps even textual, from routing stations all over the world. One station beams a message to a satellite dish, and the satellite then beams it back down to earth. The difference is that the message being beamed up had a limited service range, and the message being beamed down has a much greater service range.
That’s called area amplification, or area of effect. So long as you’re in that area you can receive coverage from the satellite. This applies to all forms of information, and the satellite is unable to control exactly where the information that it beams back down will land. This is why you have Canadian households that, once hooked up with a DirecTV satellite and receiver, are able to “pirate” free service- DirecTV is unable to control the satellite from sending the message over the boarder.
Satellite radio operates in a similar way. A station on the ground arranges and beams up programming that is then beamed back to Earth. Receivers on the ground pick up this signal, unscramble it, and then offer the resulting service to subscribed users. Though users do require unique equipment to unscramble the satellite signal, you don’t need any equipment to be in its area of effect. In fact, you have satellite radio signals passing through you at this very moment.
The satellites that are in the sky vary in technology and design based on the service provider. Two or three satellites typically exist in orbit for each provider- some staying in a geosynchronous orbit (the satellites never change position in the sky), and others in a variable, but overlapping, orbit. Regardless, both types of orbit are able to produce continuous signals, meaning that there is no interruption in service.
Customers will notice one truth about satellite radio that really sets it apart from traditional, tower-based radio: satellite radio is always loud and clear, and its largely commercial free. The small premium that you pay every month goes to paying for things like that, so commercials are not nearly as frequent as you’d expect.
What are Applications for Satellite Radio Technology?
The list of uses for satellite radio is literally endless. Taking a rather myopic look at it, the main uses seem to be two main functions:
Mobile radio – Mobile radio for your automobile seems like the most obvious application. Offering nation-wide service means that you can drive anywhere in the country (or the continent- Canada gets coverage too) and listen to the same radio station as opposed to having to constantly be switching and scanning for new ones.
Having dedicated radio stations that are constantly putting out the same content is also appealing as well, as once you’ve found a radio station that you like you won’t need to search anymore- it will always be there, playing your favorite tunes.
Home radio – Similar to mobile radio, except that generally radios that are located at home tend to stay where they are. The advantages of satellite radio may not be as obvious for the home as it is for the automobile, but there are still several advantages that satellite radio provides that can be utilized at home.
With dozens of different radio stations (all coming in crystal clear) you will always have variety when picking your radio station. Whereas most cities are rather limited in scope and variety when it comes to their radio stations, the number of stations available on satellite radio is constantly growing, meaning that your music selection is constantly expanding with it. Imagine adding CD’s to your library and never having to spend a cent.
Of course, there are other applications that could be added to that list (such as internet service or two way communications), but they are not being offered at this time and they don’t really seem to have any weight in terms of a long-term business model.
Who Can Use Satellite Radio?
Well, anyone. Anyone who doesn’t mind buying a receiver for their home or car, installing it, paying a monthly premium, and then enjoying the benefits will probably find satellite radio to be of excellent value and use. The last time that a technology this revolutionary was introduced to the personal audio was the burnable CD, and it didn’t take long for that technology to take off- it appears that satellite radio isn’t far behind.
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