Satellite Radio Sees No Borders

The launch of satellite radio services in the United States has had unintended consequences south of the border, where some broadcasters in Mexico worry about potential competition from a satellite digital radio service someday.
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No Border in the SkySome radio experts here say transmissions from XM Satellite Radio can be received in a large area of this country with hardly any difficulty and with exceptional sound quality.

I've confirmed this.

In February, I crossed the border to the United States and bought an XM Satellite radio system from a Best Buy in the city of McAllen, Texas. I returned to Mexico, connected the new radio to my home system, filled out the XM Satellite Radio page on the Internet and became a subscriber. It was that easy.

The system I bought, the Delphi SkyFi, is one of the versions for receiving transmissions at home, though the decoder can also be used in my car as long as I buy a second antenna for the top of my car.

The decoder is a small radio receiver with a liquid crystal screen that displays the radio station you're tuned to, the name of the recording artist and the song being played. It also displays information such as telephone numbers and e-mail addresses of the station or the studio transmitting the program so you can contact them. This decoder must be connected to a sound system in order to hear the programs.

The antenna for use at home and connected to the decoder is only 6 inches wide and 6 inches long. It is like a small box, 2 inches thick, with a flexible base that can be placed near a window. It does not necessarily have to be outside the house; by a window suffices to receive the signal.

The satellites used by XM Satellite Radio are powerful, so much so that I can place my hand in front of the antenna and even close my hand over it, and the signal is not interrupted.

The system has a tuner that allows me to choose among more than 100 audio channels of music and news/talk formats.

(Editor's note: XM is permitted to market its service in the 50 states, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. Currently, it only markets and handles subscriptions in the 48 contiguous states, a spokesman said. XM can tell where a subscriber is located by the billing address, and the writer used a U.S. billing address on the Internet form.)

-- Gabriel Sosa PlataMONTERREY, Mexico The launch of satellite radio services in the United States has had unintended consequences south of the border, where some broadcasters in Mexico worry about potential competition from a satellite digital radio service someday.

XM Satellite Radio says anyone who buys its service can use it legally in the United States, a perk for cross-border truckers, for example. But it's easy to obtain service simply by ordering in the United States and taking the receiver back across the border (see sidebar).

It's this kind of use Mexican broadcasters have concerns about. One group has queried the Mexican government about the issue, which some feel could lead to a diplomatic discussion between the countries.

The possibility that other Mexicans might acquire satellite receivers and receive signals from one of the two satellite companies does not please radio entrepreneurs. They worry that big group broadcasters may strike a deal with either XM or Sirius and broadcast Mexican programs all over the country, potentially undercutting listening for independent stations.

Some Mexican radio broadcasters believe the bilateral satellite digital radio agreement - signed on July 24, 2000, by Mexico and the United States with respect to the use of S-band spectrum - is vulnerable.

Signal strength?

"We're worried because authorities in this country said at first that the signal was not going to have as much power as the system now appears to have," said Roque Chávez López, director general of the Promored radio network. "They said that it would only reach 30 miles beyond the border, but this has not been the case."

XM Senior Vice President Lon Levin said the agreement has not been violated. Coverage is not specified in the S-band agreement, he said; rather, it includes a measurement of how much energy the satellite directs to the ground.

"The deal is (about) interference, not coverage."

The agreement protects Mexico's allocation for satellite radio in case that country wants to launch a similar service, he said.

XM has a similar spectrum coordination agreement with Canada.

The director of Educational Radio, Lidia Camacho, said, "In fact, if we have these kinds of international agreements, they must be respected by law, and I believe this must be unquestionable."

The National Chamber for the Radio and Television Industry, Mexico's version of the NAB, sent a letter of "concern" to the Secretary of Communication and Transportation concerning the XM transmissions situation but had not received a reply.

Mexican broadcasters said early on that the government estimated satellite digital radio penetration to be between 120 and 180 miles into the country. However, they said, the extension turned out to be greater.

For example, Mexico City, where the XM Radio signal can be heard well, is approximately 700 miles from the border city of Nuevo Laredo, adjacent to the city of Laredo, Texas. This means the major central and northern cities of the country receive the XM signal with almost no problem.

Radio broadcasters contacted for this story say that Mexico was "drawn into" the bilateral agreements signed with the United States, inasmuch as they did not consider the proximity of Puerto Rico as affecting Mexico beyond preliminary estimates. In view of the earth's curvature, in order to reach Puerto Rico, at 18 degrees north latitude, the central and southeastern parts of Mexico would also be covered by the satellite transmissions.

Apparently there are dark areas, like tunnels, uneven landscapes and areas with many buildings where the signal may be interrupted because the antenna must have a clear view of the sky. Because satellite radio hasn't been introduced in Mexico, there are no terrestrial repeaters to fill in the coverage gaps.

Bilateral agreement

No studies have been conducted on the reception of satellite digital radio in Mexico. Broadcast sources said such studies could not begin until CIRT receives a response to its letter from the government, which then could conduct studies to determine if there was a violation of the agreement. Such discussions would most likely take a diplomatic turn, with the Mexican government suggesting solutions to the FCC, sources said.

Since the CIRT sent its letter, several months have passed and "it is time for us to receive an official response," said Chávez López in May.

The agreement signed by Mexico and the United States establishes that both countries "endeavor" not to offer satellite radio systems beyond their respective borders. But inasmuch as "to endeavor" is not the same as "to prohibit," the chances are other Mexicans will subscribe to the service so long as similar services are not offered in Mexico.

However, Roque Chávez, who was also president of the Consulting Council to the CIRT, is not worried.

"I don't believe a very large percentage of the population is interested," Chávez said. "Other companies have been making these kinds of offers, like cable radio and microwave radio; and we have confirmed that the typical (Mexican) consumer will not pay for audio service."

The radio broadcaster said that given the economic situation in the country, not many Mexicans can afford to invest approximately $300 in a system, as well as to pay $10 per month for the service.

What does worry Chávez, whose group controls 14 radio stations, is that one of these days, XM or Sirius may reach an agreement with some of the larger Mexican radio companies, such as Grupo ACIR or Televisa Radio, and use the satellite to broadcast their stations' programming to the country via this broadcasting system.

"That would really affect independent radio broadcasting in the country," Chávez said.

Another scenario that worries Chávez is that the license to operate a satellite radio system might be offered to one Mexican radio group "and it would be converted into a serious national competitor, because that would be like combining 100 licenses into one."

Chávez said that he is not "against the technology, because that would be like being against progress."

"What we want is to have clear knowledge and advance warning of these offers and rules, and we do not want to do things the way they have been done in the past. There are seven families controlling the majority of the media in Mexico, and this kind of information and prompt access to this type of technology is only shared among them," said Chávez.

Mexican broadcast sources said the ownership situation, in which a few families control the bulk of the media, is common to most of Latin America.

Coincidentally, Camacho said these kinds of technological systems, such as XM Satellite Radio, "are very welcome because they enable the evolution of the media. The technology is welcome, but so are new proposals for the radio industry," he stated.

News Editor/Washington Bureau Chief Leslie Stimson contributed to this article.

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