Satellite radio: the future of mobile broadcasting or an interim technology?

Imagine having hundreds of channels of music, talk, news, comedy, wherever you are in the country, at least if you're in your car or you have a standalone receiver. This is the concept behind XM and Sirius Satellite radio. With Howard Stern's "switch to Sirius":, it would seem that this medium is about to take off, just like cable and satellite have been taking viewers away from terrestrial broadcast television.

A couple of my coworkers were talking yesterday about satellite radio, and one of them said, "This is the future." That got me to thinking about whether it really _could be_ the future. Is satellite broadcast so great? The big advantage of having a satellite is that you can reach the whole country with a single transmitter without interfering with terrestrial communications. The reason it doesn't interfere is because of the receiving antenna: for a satellite, the antenna must receive best from above, whereas for terrestrial broadcast, the antenna must receive from all around.

But where a satellite receiver with a fixed location or a tracking antenna can receive a much weaker signal from a particular satellite, the type of antenna used for a car or other cheap mobile installation receives from the entire sky, meaning that satellite radio's "slots" are much larger than those of satellite television: they cover the entire continent instead of a couple degrees of sky. This seriously limits the amount of spectrum "real estate" available for satellite radio. The antennas are also bulky and must be pointed skyward, limiting their use to mobile or fixed installations; imagine carrying a Walkman with a pickle hanging out of it that you had to keep pointed at the sky.

So who do I think would be better than Sirius or XM for handling this market? Well, what portable radio receiver do most of us already carry? You got it: your cellphone. While current FCC rules prohibit cellphone companies from using their spectrum for broadcast, they allow their use for internet access. My CDMA2000 radio can already reach 2 megabits per second. And even the 384k that's available in more markets can handle streaming audio. If they adapt the protocols to handle multicast, they don't even have to use that on a per-listener basis; any particular broadcast need only be sent once per cell.

In addition, people replace their mobile handsets every year or so, so if doing radio broadcast via CDMA or GSM requires new hardware on the handset side, it could be deployed very quickly. And the billing relationship already exists. For just a couple extra bucks a month, you could get high quality radio on your cellphone.

Of course, radio broadcast and cellular service are both heavily regulated, so where things actually go will be determined more by politics than technology, at least for now. If the cellular carriers started carrying radio broadcasts, even if it were a third party doing it using IP over the carriers' networks, you can bet the satellite and terrestrial broadcasters would immediately complain to the FCC that they had a right to those consumer dollars. You can expect Japan will be deploying this very soon, though. In fact, they probably already have it.

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Expect to see this soon --

Expect to see this soon -- my company is working on a related technology already (alas, can't yet give details), and if people as unimaginative as we are already looking at this, clever folks likely have it near deployment already.

The fact is, you could build a system for rebroadcasting downsampled internet radio streams to your cellphone today. It's not actually hard; I know a couple of folks who've done it. To deploy such a system on a large scale would be difficult, not for technical but for business reasons.

The major stumbling block is that the network operators want to control what their IP networks are used for, and have a great many ways of stepping on anyone who tries to find uses that compete with services they do or hope to offer. What the existing carriers hope to offer, of course, is pay-per-play music downloads to the phone, and they will happily block ports and fiddle with latencies to prevent applications from getting music to users in other ways. This is why you don't already have Gnutella on your phone -- technically possible (with a fair bit of cleverness), but not favored by the incumbents.

Obviously, venture capitalists and the like aren't keen on a business model that says, "powerful entrenched interests will squish us like a bug if they notice us." But there is so much pent up demand here that you can expect big things in the next six months.

Your arrows keep missing the

Your arrows keep missing the mark, though not by much. It's not the technology that is the future, its the concept. Be it satellite or cellular, the future is subscriber radio.

From a technological standpoint, traditional broadcasters already send out digital information on the FM carrier signal. Throw some digital radios into the equation and we'll have terrestrial based non-cellular digital subscriber radio. :smile:

Hmm... I may be missing the

Hmm... I may be missing the point, but what I want is IP connectivity whereever I go (say 384kbps for $30/month). Whether I listen to music, or talk to my wife, or pay the bills, or post on a blog could all be done over this same plumbing. I don't really care whether it is done via cellphone or satellite or 802.11b on top of every telephone pole so long as it is reliable and cost effective.

Legacy regulations no doubt get in the way, but there are so many technological options that they could probably be circumvented. I suspect that this service isn't currently available because it is only profitable to supply today if you can bundle programming and delivery together, and that is the opposite of what I want.