Sunday, January 15, 2006

Radio Redux: Discovering Satellite Radio

Living in Jalandhar and Patiala, radio service for me has always been mediocre at best. Having just a single FM channel(which, of course, happens to be All-India Radio) to listen to has never been exciting... I never missed radio. But, as it happens, times change. A few minutes of satellite radio(all thanks to Geetu Mausi), was all that was needed. My TV:radio time has gone from 1:0 to 1:10 in a day and a half. So what makes it so great? Read on...

The Works
Basically, this is how a satellite radio works: the radio service provider(WorldSpace in case of Asia, Africa and Latin America) puts a satellite in geostationary orbit, the user aligns the receiver antenna(the standard one not much bigger than a palm) to establish line of sight(LOS) with the satellite, and the system is ready to receive the signal. The broadcast signal is digital in nature, so sound quality is not a problem. Its either the signal or no signal. Most channels are transmitted at 128 kbps - thats mp3 quality, not CD quality, as the providers usually claim, but good enough for me, and almost everyone.

Setting up the antenna takes only a couple of minutes, all you have to know is which direction the satellite is in(south-east in case of India), make sure you have a clear look at the sky in that dir., point the antenna there, tweak the elevation a bit, and you are done. LOS means usually you have to keep the antenna outdoors, but if you can get a look in that direction indoors, its good enough. Glass is no obstruction, so there's no need to open the windows either.

The broadcast station being a geo sat, the coverage area is huge...

Thats the coverage for the three WorldSpace satellites; AsiaStar, AfriStar and AmeriStar. Each satellite transmits three different beams. Anytime you are inside one of these beams, and you can see the sky, you are ready to roll. This means satellite radio will work where it would be nearly impossible for conventional radio to.

The Service
But of course you need a high quality radio service(contentwise, not just the stream) if its to be any good. As far as WS's content goes, its quite good. There are about 40 channels, all running 24-hours a day. Most are music channels, and almost each is dedicated to a specific genre. Rock, pop, R&B, jazz, techno, its all there. For my mum, there's one dedicated to Indian classical music, one for ghazals, another one for puraani filmein(old hindi films). And then there's one for current Bollywood hits. There's even one for Punjabi music,(yeah, twenty-four hours of Punjabi songs only). There's hardly any advertisement, and little interruption from RJs(although both can be quite squeaky when they do appear).

Having more of an ear for western music, I have listened to everything from U2 & Coldplay to Green Day to Norah Jones to Led Zeppelin to Bob Marley since yesterday, and it just keeps getting better. Don't like whats coming on rock? There's so many channels to switch to... who needs AIR's crap now?

BTW, as I mentioned earlier, the sound quality is mp3 like, so don't forget that. There's no degradation of signal, it can only go off. Even FM can't approach the kind of quality that sat radio has.

More info about the WS's Indian service here.

And the Cost...
The set that my mausi got for us is a BPL diva, which costs around Rs 3790. This includes the main unit, the antenna, a remote, an AV cable, and an adaptor. While affordable, its still on the high side. But one should expect it to go down soon.

You need a subscription to listen to most channels. The subscription service costs Rs 1800 per year. That's the "silver" service which we have, the one I have talked about. There's also a "gold" service which has a few more channels(mostly news), but silver is good enough. While its not a steal, but compared to what you have to pay for cable TV, its a good bargain.

Actually, there's a limited offer with the Diva right now, with which you can buy the set and a three months subscription for Rs 1990. A pretty good deal, I think. If you are thinking of buying a satellite radio, you might wanna try that out.

More info about the prices and models in India here.

Time to discuss a few drawbacks:

While its portable, its not mobile. What I would really have loved is if I could listen to it on the move. While its possible, its highly impractical. Line-of-sight means that you would have to constantly adjust the antenna to face the satellite; very difficult in a car, especially in a city (and only possible if there's atleast one passenger).

Also, the service could do with more Indian channels. While desi coverage is better than conventional radio, but compared to WS's international content, there is room for improvement in Indian content. Certainly it would be better to have a few more Hindi music channels. And then there's no local content. So no news about Jalandhar's weather over here. That's what you need AIR for.

Another thing, of course, is the cost. While the price of subscription is still okay, it can go down. And satellite radio would definitely get a big boost if receivers' costs were to decrease.

The one thing that really bugs me is that there is only one provider, i.e. WorldSpace. I really appreciate what WS is trying to achieve, but the fact remains that, as a user, you are completely at its mercy. Its service is great right now, but I have no choice whether its good or bad. Competition would keep it on its toes, but because of high costs of owning a geostationary satellite, I don't think its possible soon. Also, if a competitor does come up, I would have to buy another receiver for its broadcasts. As far as I know, my receiver can only receive WS's broadcasts.

Radio has never been as exciting, not even when I built my own. While I can't say much about the metros, as far as Punjab, and most of non-metro India goes, satellite radio is a great alternative to... not conventional radio, but television. Really, my TV viewing has declined sharply this weekend. Maybe some of it is just initial excitement over sat radio, but believe me, its a great thing to have. The next time you decide to buy an audio system, spare a thought for this little piece. Or maybe you don't even have to wait till the next time...

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The quality is really good... much better than FM. Take my word for it.

And as for connecting the speakers, BPL Diva(the set which I have) doesn't come with a builtin speaker, it has a lineout port for connecting the speakers, headphones, etc. So connecting your creative 2.1 should not be a problem. I believe any other set, too, would have lineout ports.
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