What Is Satellite Radio?

The ins and outs of satellite radio and its only provider in North America

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Satellite radio is a subscription service that uses communications satellites to broadcast audio programming over a large area. While the technology has existed since the 1990s, it is not nearly as popular as traditional terrestrial radio. Satellite radio is similar to conventional radio in some respects, but there are significant differences.

How Does Satellite Radio Work?

The broadcast format of satellite radio is more or less the same as terrestrial, but because it's offered through a subscription model, most stations are available without commercial interruption. Like satellite television, you need special equipment to listen to satellite radio.

A key benefit of satellite radio is that the signal is available over a much broader geographical range than terrestrial radio. A handful of satellites can blanket an entire continent, and each satellite radio service provides the same set of stations and programs to its entire coverage area. That means you get the same programming in New England as in Southern California.

Satellite Radio in North America: SiriusXM

In the North American market, there is only one option for satellite radio: SiriusXM. Sirius and XM used to be two separate companies, but the two merged in 2008 when Sirius purchased XM Radio.

At its inception, XM was broadcast from two geostationary satellites that spanned the United States, Canada, and parts of northern Mexico. Sirius used three satellites, but they were in highly elliptical geosynchronous orbits that provided coverage to both North and South America.

The difference in satellite orbits also affected the quality of coverage. Since the Sirius signal originated from a higher angle in Canada and the northern United States, the signal was more robust in cities with many tall buildings. However, the Sirius signal was also more likely than XM to be cut off when driving in tunnels.

Satellite Radio in Your Car

In 2016, the United States had roughly 30 million satellite radio subscribers. SiriusXM has pushed automakers to include satellite radio in their new vehicles, and most car manufacturers have at least one vehicle with satellite hookups. Some new vehicles even come with a pre-paid subscription.

Since satellite radio subscriptions are tied to individual receivers, SiriusXM offers portable receivers that can be carried from one place to another. These portable receivers are designed to fit into docking stations, but many are also compatible with specialized head units.

If you spend a lot of time in your car, a head unit with a built-in satellite radio tuner can provide an excellent, unbroken source of entertainment on the road. However, a portable receiver unit lets you take that same entertainment into your home or workplace.

SiriusXM also has streaming options, meaning you don't need a receiver to listen to satellite radio outside your car. With a subscription and an app from SiriusXM, you can stream satellite radio on your computer, tablet, or phone.

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