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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 of programming.

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 it.

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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