The Broken Satellite Repeater Report

April 12th, 2016

When it comes to satellite radio, I go back a long way. I first interviewed someone from XM Radio around 2004 or 2005. In exchange, they gave me a press account for a few months. I later converted this to a paid account and, when my personal finances hit the skids, my son picked up the bill, so I continue to keep satellite radios in the home and in the car.

After XM and its lone rival, Sirius, merged in 2008, the 150 or so channels each offered were more or less combined. I say more or less, because some channels, such as the two that carry the Howard Stern show, were placed in an extra-cost package for XM users called All Access.  But you don’t have to pay extra for Stern if you have the standard Sirius Select package.

So despite the promise that they’d be combined, eventually, you still have separate Sirius and XM radios and subscription plans.

Unfortunately, unless you buy from the aftermarket, you don’t have a choice of which service is available for your car. The auto maker chooses for you. In recent years, I’ve ended up with Sirius in the car, but home radios, such as they are, usually offer XM except for a model known as Lynx, which supports SiriusXM, which I presume includes the combined version of the service and Wi-Fi.

So why pay for radio when you can tune in to your local broadcast stations or choose from thousands of channels online — all free? Well, if you travel a lot it may make sense to want to listen to the same programs from the same channels throughout most of the U.S. and Canada. I say most, because the satellite signals have to be enhanced by terrestrial repeaters in some areas, particularly where there are long sections of forests, mountains and tunnels. So some places, you can enter a tunnel and still listen to your favorite stations, because SiriusXM has invested in a repeater network.

The system works fine for cars, and drop-outs are usually infrequent. However, home reception usually requires being within range of a repeater, even if you aim the antenna carefully. And there’s the problem. Similar to satellite TV, you have a tiny antenna or dish that needs to be oriented roughly south, free of obstructions. So it’s not as if you can just carry around a portable radio and receive a consistent signal. Now I suppose they could develop a radio with an embedded Wi-Fi base station that would push the signal to portable radios or speaker systems around your home or office. If you opt to subscribe to the Internet streaming version of SiriuxXM, the Lynx radio can pick up the signal anywhere in your home via your router.

But home radios evidently aren’t key markets for SiriusXM, I gather. There are only a handful of receivers available, and they are modular, meaning that you have to buy a separate speaker dock for them. Internet streaming is a suitable alternative when satellite reception isn’t possible, or is inconsistent. You can login via your browser or, on direct from a mobile app that’s available for the major platforms.

Since SiriusXM is an online or satellite-based service, it is not tethered to the FCC or its regulations. Thus there are no restrictions about language, and it’s not uncommon to hear the “seven dirty words” on Stern’s show and other talk programs. The musical fare is excellent. The channels cover loads of musical genres and sub-genres, so you have a channel called “Classic Vinyl,” which is classic rock music sourced on vinyl for analog fans. There are dedicated channels for special artists, such as Elvis Presley and Tom Petty.

While many channels have the usual radio advertising clutter, music-only channels get special treatment. They are ad-free, and are often hosted by famous disk jockeys from the old days, such as “Cousin” Bruce Morrow, a mainstay decades ago on WABC-AM radio in New York City before it went all-talk, along with a selection of former MTV VJs, such as Nina Blackwood.

There are also channels for comedy, entertainment, news, talk and religion. For news junkies, you can listen to the audio from your favorite cable news channel.

That’s the good stuff.

The digital audio is heavily compressed. So the signal via satellite doesn’t quite match FM in sound quality, but it’s clean and relatively clear except on complex musical passages, where it gets a little mushy. The Internet streaming version is usually superior.

Now about those repeaters. If they aren’t working in your city, your home radio may also be down for the count. A typical warning message on your satellite radio is “No Satellite Signal,” but woe to those who try to get a direct answer from SiriusXM support about dealing with such a problem. I have run into it for several days at a time in recent months. Unfortunately, SiriusXM support is mostly sourced overseas, which means you may be stuck with someone barely conversant in English trying to diagnose your problem.

When I encountered these issues, I was told to let them refresh the signal, which essentially means that your radio is reactivated, and that can cure some problems within a few moments. It didn’t for me, although the satellite radio in the family car worked just fine. After going through several support levels, I even persuaded them to replace the home receiver, twice, and finally the loudspeaker dock. Swapping out the satellite dish didn’t help. Unfortunately, support apparently receives infrequent updates of service outages, usually once a day, and that database may be out of date, or inaccurate. So the outage affecting your city may not even be listed.

My resolution, sort of, was to contact SiriusXM corporate support, which is not easy to reach. You have to ask a customer service rep nicely a few times before they’ll connect you or give you a separate phone number to dial. In my case, they investigated the problem and confirmed there was a repeater outage impacting the metropolitan Phoenix area. Shortly before I wrote this column, I was assured service would be restored within three business days. When I protested, they offered a service credit and a temporary subscription to the Internet streaming service.

Is satellite radio worth paying for? That depends. You may receive a trial subscription when you buy or lease a new car. They usually last from three months to one year depending on the make and model. Before the free service lapses, they might offer you a six-month discount deal. After that, it’s usually $10.99 per month for “Mostly Music” and $14.99 per month for the standard Select packages. Internet only service is also $14.99 per month standalone, but only $4.00 extra if you opt for another subscription package. There are discounts for multiple radios.

In order to boost business, SiriusXM might temporarily turn on inactive car radios en masse for a few days to entice you to sign up and join the more than 30 million listeners to the service.

For a car, it may be worth the price, but it’s hit or miss for your home. The best bet is probably the Streaming option. But remember that you’re using up Internet bandwidth. The audio-only signal may not be so draining for your home, but on the road it will be less expensive to stick with a car-based satellite radio if your vehicle has one. You won’t have to worry about a wireless carrier’s bandwidth restrictions.

As much as I’ve come to depend on my satellite radios, if I didn’t have someone paying for it, I’d be inclined to put it on the chopping block, along with all the other stuff I’ve given up in recent years.

Update: XM service was restored to my home radio on Wednesday afternoon, six days after it failed.

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