Satellite Radio Comes to Canada
By Jim Bray
It’s beginning to rain music - and talk, and sports all across
Canada. But it’ll cost you to partake!
This information precipitation is promising to bring Canadian broadcasters
some much-needed competition, while offering Canadian consumers more choice.
The services are provided by Sirius and XM Satellite radio systems, whose
services have been available in the United States for a couple of years
now. But until recently the only way you could receive these premium pay-to-listen
audio services in Canada was to buy a grey market system from the States,
and then have to plod carefully through life looking over your shoulder
for the Satellite Radio Police to bust you for having the audacity to make
an end run around the CRTC, those guardians of Canadian sensitivities.
Then the CRTC – that bane of freedom of choice – was convinced
that Canadians should be able to have access to these digital broadcasts,
though of course there’d have to be sufficient Canadian content to
ensure that Canadians’ minds wouldn’t be completely warped
by all that evil American stuff.
So Sirius and XM both entered into partnerships with Canadian broadcasters
to expand their existing coverage into the once-Great White North without
causing Canucks to suddenly stop saying “eh?” and instead go
out and buy guns and bibles.
The idea builds on what satellite TV providers have been doing for years. Programming
is beamed to your home or car from a satellite in geosynchronous orbit, which
means it takes an entire day to complete one orbit and therefore appears to
be poised permanently over the same spot on the earth. The result, at least
theoretically, is digital-quality sound and a greater and more innovative variety
Both Sirius and XM claim their services will offer about 100 channels,
many of which are commercial-free, and some ten of which are Canadian.
Six of Sirius’ channels are from the CBC, so we should be able to
get as much Canuck navel gazing as we deem necessary.
Fortunately, rather than forcing these broadcasters to insert Cancon into
all their offerings, the way traditional Canadian broadcasters are obliged
to play a percentage of Canadian artists regardless whether they’re
any good or not or if anyone wants to hear them, they’re being allowed
to just add some Canadian channels.
If you have to be protectionist, this is how to do it, though the Canadian
services add Canuck content at the expense of a few Yankee channels. But
this means customers will be able to either seek out Canadian programming
because they want to, or ignore Canadian programming for the same reason.
Freedom of choice. And the CRTC hasn’t even been shut down yet!
I got to spend a weekend with Sirius’ service shortly before its
Canadian debut, thanks to a unit retrofitted into a Ford Explorer from
Hertz Rent a car. It wasn’t nearly enough time to get a feel for
100 channels, but it was enough to convince me that I like it and I want
I surfed around the “dial,” hoping for starters that I could
access Laura Ingraham’s talk show, a program that has become a healthy
radio addiction to me thanks to Internet audio streams from US-based radio
stations. I had dragged myself away from KRLA’s feed to go pick up
the Sirius-equipped Explorer and was hoping I could pick it up on my way
back – and I could! Not all the talkers I like are there, but these
services are still basically in their infancy anyway, so over time this
may improve. And in the meantime, it’s pretty good and offers some
choices you may not have heard before.
Then I went searching for classic rock – hoping for real classic
rock rather than the usual FM radio fluff that seems to play the same 40
or so oldies over and over again. And the first channel I found was playing “In
the Court of the Crimson King,” by King Crimson. I’m not sure
I ever heard that on the radio before, even in the glory days of progressive
FM stations in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s.
Needless to say I was hooked. And that was just one of the rock stations.
Here’s a quick rundown of what Sirius offers (XM’s offerings
are basically similar but not identical):
• 60 channels of commercial-free music (rock, pop, classical, electronic/hip-hop/R&B
, Jazz & Blues, Standards, Latin & International, etc.)
• 40 channels of news, sports and other entertainment
• 30 games of NHL play-by-play per week (during the interminable season)
• 10 Canadian premium channels.
Chances are there’s something for virtually anyone.
Sirius’ service costs $14.95 Canadian a month and because it’s
satellite based you should be able to go pretty well anywhere in North
America without losing the signal (not counting tunnels, under bridges,
in parking garages, etc.). This is a heck of an incentive for people who
travel a lot, and the 100 channels is incentive for people who are tired
of the same old same old from off the air broadcasters. And of course you
don’t lose your local radio channels when you fire up the satellite
service; it piggybacks on top of it, giving you the best of both worlds.
My biggest complaint (other than not having long enough with the unit!)
was the hardware itself. My test unit was the Starmate portable plug and
play receiver, which can be a good way to get Sirius in the vehicle and
at home, since you can move the unit around.
Unfortunately, the portability means the unit mounted into my test vehicle
with a suction cup for the windshield, and it’s a pain in the neck
getting to stay there. And since the unit itself sits on your dashboard
it’s an open invitation for thieves if you don’t remove it
every time you leave the vehicle, which is even more of a pain.
The temporary installation I had wasn’t wired directly into the
vehicle’s audio system, either, sending the satellite audio feed
to your vehicle’s head unit via FM radio instead. This is fine, and
the sound quality was very good, but I think it would be even better if
you were to get a system with the satellite capability built right in.
Such units are also available “at fine stores everywhere,” and
an increasing number of new cars have satellite capability (either Sirius
or XM) built in at the factory, which is the best solution as long as you
can get the service you want.
But that temporary installation drove me nuts (an admittedly short drive).
Because I didn’t want to leave it in the Explorer when I wasn’t
there, and getting that damn suction cup to work was such a pain, I usually
just perched it on the center console when I was driving around. This worked
okay until I hit the first corner, or had to stand on the brakes, at which
time the head unit would head in whatever general direction it found pleasing,
until it reached the length of the wires that hooked it into the antenna
and power supply.
So a permanent installation is definitely the way to go!
But it’s wonderful to see such a variety of programming available
and even though I’d probably never listen to 85% of the channels
offered, there’s enough meat on the platter that I could justify
the premium fee.
Having more choices – and more competition for your attention – is
a good thing. Having fewer commercials is even better!
Jim Bray's technology columns are distributed by the TechnoFILE and Mochila Syndicates. Copyright Jim Bray.
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