— July 2002
By Ben Ellison
More Marine Media
|Part 2: Coverage|
The elusive issue for many boaters is just how far the coverage blanket extends. Fortunately, a fellow named Peter Gruol is working hard to find out. Gruol is president of Radio-at-Sea, and he aims to maximize the virtues of satellite radios for boats.
As we go to press, Gruol is shipping his first sets of custom high-gain marine antennas and Audiovox XM receivers to test boats in Alaska, the Caribbean, and other "marginal" reception areas. So far the XM signal is exceeding its power and range goals, and the company is now predicting signal locks up to 300 miles off the U.S. coasts. Unlike satellite TV transmissions, the new 2.3-GHz radio waves are unaffected by rain showers. They can, however, be blocked by buildings and mountains, which has obliged both XM and Sirius to build numerous terrestrial repeaters. Boats, of course, will rarely experience these problems.
To understand the possible margins of satellite radio reception, you need to visualize the system architectures. XM's two satellites, "Rock" and "Roll," are in geostationary orbit over the equator at 85 degrees and 105 degrees longitude, respectively, with their antennas focused due north in cone patterns. The eastern Caribbean may be outside the cone, and the coast of Alaska may be too far away. Sirius has three satellites moving in overlapping figure-eight orbits such that one will always be over the United States. Gruol says the company has so far been unwilling to detail its broadcast footprint, but he and his dealer network will have their own test results as soon as possible.
Several consumer-electronics companies are building XM receivers, but Gruol's decision to market the Audiovox unit appears wise on a couple of counts. First is installation flexibility. It has an FM demodulator to feed the satellite channels via an antenna splitter into a standard automobile-style radio; in addition, it has RCA plugs for simpler and cleaner input to the better stereo systems. The Audiovox also sports a four-line LCD on its control head, taking full advantage of digital XM's ability to broadcast a song's artist and title with the sound. That's a nice feature when you hear a tune you might want to own, plus it means that the DJs don't need to read long song lists.
Radio-at-Sea sells a marinized version of the Audiovox along with its marine antenna for $595. No doubt you could shop around and get most any of the available satellite radios to work on your boat, but I don't see a compelling reason to do so, with the possible exception of Sony's portable offering. Using home and auto docking stations, this unit lets you carry your electronically locked $9.95-per-month XM subscription around with you.
Some are skeptical about the long-term reliability and economic viability of satellite radio, but not me. I know that both XM and Sirius have spare satellites ready to launch, and, if there is a business failure, I'll bet the service will survive the way Iridium did--with a "lower cost structure" (investors beware). These 100 channels are just too good to go away.
Radio-at-Sea Phone: (781) 274-0002. Fax: (781) 274-6010. www.radio-at-sea.com.
Ben Ellison has been a delivery captain and navigation instructor for nearly 30 years and was recently editor of Reed's Nautical Almanacs.
This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.