XM Satellite radio arrives in Canada

Have you heard, Satellite Radio has arrived in Canada!!

Having had an opportunity to test the system, I can tell you it really is all that the company, in this case XM Canada, claims it to be. Easy to install, easy to use and a multitude of choice at your fingertips.

The system is licenced for use in Canada from XM Radio in the US. Most of the programming originates from the US (from studios located in Washington, Nashville, and New York City), but XM Canada originates 8 channels from Canada, with studios in Toronto and Montreal. The full slate of 120 channels was scaled back to 80 for Canadian customers due to the CRTC restrictions. Gone is local traffic and weather as well as several US-based talk channels — such as CSPAN radio — which are of little use to most Canadians.

The experience of listening to paid satellite programming in the car was made more pleasurable due to the novelty factor of being one of the first around to have access to it.
I have long listened to the music audio channels of the television satellite system and wished I could have the commercial free music channels in the car, well now I can.

Most of the marketing I have seen for the systems have focused on the mobile application of the system, however I am looking forward to a home installation with equal interest. Having a system dedicated to the stereo system in the house will be a relief instead of having to turn on the television to listen to music or have it limited to the home theatre system.

The system operates differently than a television satellite system, in that in urban areas, the signal is rebroadcast through “repeaters” in the form of a digital radio signal. This allows drivers to travel under bridges and theoretically into underground parking lots and still maintain reception.

I have tested 2 systems, one a GM factory installed unit with a Satellite radio receiver integrated into a radio/cd player. The factory installed unit is all that the system promises to be. The aftermarket add-ons require some level of compromise in either form, function or quality.

The aftermarket systems are able to play through your current cars stereo’s fm/cassette deck by a cassette adapter, which gives the best consistent sound quality. A wired connection, which is a less advantageous connection and lastly the least favorable, using the unit’s built in FM transmitter and synchronizing the radio to receive a signal broadcast from the portable unit. The last scenario will probable be the most commonly used in the early stages as it is the easiest and least intrusive method to receive programming. The major pitfall of this set up is that in a large urban area like Toronto, you are hard pressed to find a slot on your FM dial without some level of interference from a competing signal on that frequency. Also if you do leave your regular travel area as you enter other broadcast areas, you could encounter competing signals on the frequency you have chosen.
The complaints I have heard from other journalist testing the units, have revolved around incorrect installations and the interference from FM frequencies.

All of the above still doesn’t detract significantly from the fact that the overall sound quality is head and shoulders above a regular FM broadcast and the ability to pick commercial free themed programming is a significant bonus.

The factory installed GM unit was perhaps the most pleasurable audio episode I have experienced in a car. The sound through the factory Bose stereo was outstanding and there were no interface issues as in the aftermarket systems. Toyota, Honda, Suzuki, Hyundai and General Motors (who owns 7% of XM Canada) will offer XM radios in their vehicle. The GM factory system we tested was a $325 option in our test vehicle.

The other satellite radios system available to Canadians is being offered by Sirius Satellite. Their system has some technological differences to the XM system but I suspect the overall experience should be similar. I have not tested the Sirius system and as such cannot comment on the programming offered.

The cost of the programming through XM Canada, at $12.95 per month for the first system and duplicate units on the same subscription at $9.95, make the cost of acquiring Satellite radio a relatively painless decision.

XM Canada has offered 8 Canadian channels that are required to provide a minimum of 85% Canadian content. Over and above that, they have focused much of the pre launch hype on a contract with the NHL to relay and rebroadcast games across the country from the home team’s regular radio stations. XM Canada, who will be the exclusive broadcaster of the NHL starting in 2007, has also set up a full time NHL talk channel featuring former NHL stars.

The ability to stream additional information into the signal is another of the pleasant surprises, I was able to program the unit I was using, a Delphi Roady XT, to run a ticker tape update of the sporting events I was keeping track of while I was driving around and listening to any channel on the XM system. No more waiting for local radio updates of games across the continent! Oddly enough, this feature was not present in the factory unit I tested.

I am convinced the system is a winner and XM Canada and Sirius should have little trouble soliciting subscribers that experience the system first hand. It’s a sure bet your next rental car will have one of these systems installed.

XM units will be available at stereo and electronics outlets as of November 29, 2005. Check it out, it’s worth the look.