What Is Satellite Radio?

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

Satellite in orbit above the earth

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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 been around since the 1990s, it is not nearly as popular as traditional terrestrial radio. Satellite radio is similar to traditional radio in some respects, but there are important differences.

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 are capable of blanketing 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 you get in Southern California.

Satellite Radio in North America

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

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 stronger in cities that had a lot of tall buildings. However, the Sirius signal was also more likely than XM to be cut off when driving in tunnels.

Sirius, XM, and SiriusXM all share the same programming packages, but the orbits of their respective satellites can impact the quality of reception depending on where you are in North America.

Satellite Radio in Your Car

In 2016, there were roughly 30 million satellite radio subscribers in the United States. Both Sirius and XM have 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, Sirius XM 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 allows you to take that same entertainment into your home or workplace.

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

Satellite Radio Elsewhere in the World

Satellite radio is used for various purposes in different parts of the world. In some parts of Europe, terrestrial FM radio is simulcast over satellite. There are also plans for a subscription-based service that will provide radio programming, video, and other media to portable devices and head units.

Up until 2009, there was a service called WorldSpace that provided subscription-based satellite radio programming to parts of Europe, Asia, and Africa. That service provider filed for bankruptcy in 2008.