Bottom Line
Satellite radio wars are on
XM is battling Sirius. The Roady is battling the Streamer. And the winner will be ... you, the customer, with better programming, more convenience and lower priced equipment.

By Paul Abelson, technical editor

In 2001 and into 2002, the price of satellite radio was prohibitive to many. It was not the monthly subscription price, $9.95 for XM and $12.95 for Sirius. It was the price of the hardware. That’s changing. Steady growth of both companies and advancing technology means truckers can afford to have satellite radio. More than that, you’ve got a choice.

When first introduced, an XM-only 4-foot mirror-mounted truck antenna cost $180. A satellite radio receiver could range from $200 or more for just an adapter (with one component on top of your dash and another behind it), to $400 or more for a fully integrated replacement AM/FM/XM radio with a tape deck. Add a CD player, and “or more” becomes the operative term.

The early units needed professional installation. In 2001 and 2002, it was possible to spend $550 (installed) for just the XM adapter, or $850 and up for a completely integrated system. Even though prices started dropping about the time that Sirius went online, it would need a breakthrough to make satellite radio popular.

Actually, there were a series of them. The first was the Delphi SkyFi, a modular system that could be used at home or in a vehicle. List price for the basic tuner, complete with a remote control, was just $130.

The SkyFi slipped easily into its various docking stations. The vehicle docking station, complete with a 12-volt power adapter and a magnetic mount antenna, had a list price of just $70, less than any of the earlier antenna by themselves. For just under $200, you could install the adapter yourself and give your truck a satellite system.

The docking feature of the SkyFi gives it added versatility. For another $70 you can get a home/office adapter with its own stand, an AC power adapter and jacks to connect to either a home audio system or multimedia speakers.

My favorite for home use, however, is the SkyFi Boombox. Measuring 18 inches wide, 7 inches high and 5 inches deep, this turns the unit into a full-fledged sound system. There’s a remote antenna, too. I’ve found it works facing every way but north. The Boombox runs with either an AC adapter or six D-cell batteries.

In 2003, another breakthrough took place in marketing. Last year, XM targeted 1 million subscribers, and with some help from General Motors vehicles, reportedly made the goal. Sirius is now involved with DaimlerChrysler and Ford, and both services are targeting imported cars. In our heavy truck market, fully digital AM/FM/XM plus cassette or CD systems from Delphi are available from most truck dealers.

If you’ll be at the Mid-American Trucking Show, you’ll see the next generation of satellite receivers. Delphi will show the XM Roady, while Pana-Pacific will feature the Sirius Streamer, introduced at the 2002 Great American Trucking Show.

The Delphi vehicle system starts at $120, complete with the tuner-receiver, a remote micro-antenna, a mounting base, power cord and a cassette adapter to feed the signal to your existing radio. The Roady comes with interchangeable faceplates so you can color coordinate the unit with your interior. For another $40, you can get Delphi’s wireless FM modulator. This eliminates the cassette adapter by sending an FM signal direct to your truck’s FM radio. For just under $180, you can get the complete XM Roady system, with everything mentioned and a remote control unit.

The Sirius Streamer is bigger than the SkyFi, and its larger controls make it easier to operate, especially with gloves on. It, too, adapts to vehicle or home use with purpose-designed docking stations. At this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, Pana-Pacific introduced a boom box for the Streamer, similar in concept to, and in competition with Delphi’s SkyFi Boom Box.

The heavy-duty vehicle installation kit for the Streamer even has a clamp-on base plate for mounting the small remote magnetic antenna. You don’t really need it, though. The antenna is light enough to mount, using 3M’s industrial strength mounting tape, to the top edge of your aerodynamic fairing or your roof, even if it’s not steel.

Well-known manufacturers like Sony, Kenwood, Panasonic, Terk and others make satellite radio kits, but they are not pursuing the trucking market anywhere near as aggressively as Delphi and Pana-Pacific. I don’t know how well those makes will stand up to the jarring they’d get in a truck.

Duking it out
The competition in hardware is aggressive, but not nearly as much as programming between the two broadcasters.

Experience with both services has shown them to be virtually equal in reliability and service. Both transmit program information such as song title and artist, composer and/or musicians, or with the spoken word, show name and personalities. Both services use repeater stations to cover large cities and geographic features that might block line-of-sight signals. Driving the canyons of Chicago, I have no trouble receiving either service.

XM has 115 channels, including music to satisfy any taste from hip-hop to opera, disco to symphony, jazz to country. So does Sirius. By the way, XM calls them “channels,” Sirius calls them “streams.”

Both have ESPN Radio and ESPN News, BBC World News, and a variety of proprietary talk programming. Sirius has NPR. In fact, Sirius has several Public Radio streams and four weather streams.

Sixty music streams on Sirius are commercial-free, or at least free of paid commercials. There are public service announcements and promotions for other streams during periodic breaks in the music. They’re on both services.

Sirius has several interesting talk-radio streams: Wisdom, dedicated to life improvement, and Sirius Right/Sirius Left, two political streams for either side of the aisle.

Both offer programming for truckers. XM rotates between Truckin’ Bozo, Dave Nemo and Bill Mack; Sirius carries the Midnight Trucking Network with Eric Harley, and also produces a daytime news and information show on the Sirius Trucking Network.

Both have comedy programming, with one channel on each service having adult comedy.

XM offers NASCAR Radio, with live broadcasts of every Craftsman Truck, Busch and Nextel Cup race. Sirius has Speed Channel, with coverage of the full spectrum of motor racing and other speed sports worldwide.

This year, Sirius announced it would broadcast every NFL game. They now carry every NBA and NHL game. The question for sports fans is, do you want team sports or do you want NASCAR?

For truckers, traffic may be more important than sports. That’s why XM added 21 Instant Traffic and Weather channels. Fifteen are up and running now with six to be added later this year. With a winter like we’ve had, weather updates are definitely big news. On the trucking channels, you’ll hear constant road advisories.

Paul Abelson can be reached at