WorldSpace is marching steadily, introducing its service to an audience of 4.6 billion listeners throughout the Southern Hemisphere.
Currently, two geostationary satellites beam programming to Africa, the Middle East and South Asia from orbital slots above the equator.
Each satellite emits three beams, each of which can deliver more than 40 channels of crystal-clear audio and multimedia programming directly to portable receivers. Each beam covers roughly 5.5 million square miles.
In October 1999, the Washington, D.C.-based company launched its first satellite, AfriStar, covering Africa, the Middle East and the Mediterranean Basin, followed by AsiaStar in March 2000, which blankets nearly all of the Asian continent.
By year-end 2001, a third satellite, AmeriStar, will provide service throughout Latin America and the Caribbean.
In India, huge billboards announce the recent arrival of WorldSpace satellite radio service in the south-central city of Bangalore.
Bangalore, the technology capital of India, is the first to test-market the WorldSpace Asia service, with the countrywide rollout planned for other Indian cities in coming months.
Electronics stores throughout the city sell the WorldSpace receivers, manufactured by Hitachi, Sanyo, JVC and Panasonic, equipped with AM, FM and shortwave bands, as well as satellite reception capabilities.
To explore the possibilities of the WorldSpace system, I acquired a Hitachi receiver.
The radio operates much the same way as a conventional receiver, using an LCD for channel information and up/down buttons for tuning. There is an additional beam-seek button for receiving satellite radio.
The satellite dish, attached sturdily to the top of the receiver via a customized clamp system, is a flat box rather than a concave sphere, 1.3 inches deep and about the width and height of a CD jewel box.
Setting up the equipment to receive satellite signals is simple, compared to the complex steps needed to receive satellite television signals.
The AsiaStar satellite is positioned above Singapore, so the dish simply need be pointed to the sky in that direction (southeast from India) and press the beam seek button.
As with all satellite technology, the dish must have line-of-sight access to the satellite, making reception within many buildings and built-up city areas impossible. An antenna lead allows the dish to be placed on a windowsill for indoors listening.
As the signal is digital, reception is either a perfect-quality signal or nothing at all.
I experimented and found that I could use the receiver inside a building, as long as it was within three feet or so of a window with an unobstructed view in the necessary direction.
I was unlucky in Bombay, where the hotel gave me a sixth-floor room facing due north, making satellite reception impossible. Fortunately, the outdoor swimming pool proved to have a perfectly clear view toward the southwest.
In my poolside tests, I found that individual palm tree fronds proved no barrier to the signal, but more dense vegetation or groups of palm trees did disrupt reception.
I was initially shocked when I heard the sheer clarity of the digital sound – absolutely crystal clear with no fading or interference.
However, if an object temporarily blocks the line of sight, such as a pool attendant walking past, the signal does disappear for a few seconds but it returns quickly without the need for readjustment.
So what sort of programming does AsiaStar offer?
Weeks after the launch of the service, I could choose among 23 stations by satellite. To those living in media-deprived countries, the WorldSpace radio channels offer unprecedented choice.
AsiaStar offers programming from a dozen well-known international broadcasters, including the BBC World Service, CNN Radio International and eight 24-hour music channels in a variety of niche formats.
Some nine channels carry Indian-language programming, including several that play 24-hour Hindi and Tamil film music. There are Kannada- and Malayalam-language stations, in addition to a live feed from Sunrise Radio, a South Asian-oriented station in London.
Each WorldSpace satellite broadcasts three regional beams to different geographic footprints. While I am listening to programming delivered from the western beam of the AsiaStar satellite, someone listening within the footprint of the eastern beam from the same satellite would have a different menu of stations.
Each satellite beam has capacity for 400 stations, so the choices will be extended dramatically over time.
I can understand why several hundred WorldSpace receivers were sold in the Bangalore test market within weeks of the launch.
The technology is easy to use, the quality of reception is incredible and the signal is remarkably robust once the receiver achieves contact with the satellite.
I could rotate the receiver 30 degrees in either direction without losing the signal, and I could tilt the dish up and down without effect. My wish is that the second generation of receivers weigh less and use AA batteries.
The most remarkable feat is WorldSpace successful implementation of this futuristic technology in the developing world, where traditional media infrastructure is terribly sparse – effectively leapfrogging a whole tier of technologies.
I have heard the future and the impression from poolside in Bombay is that satellite radio proves more practical and immediate than many of the “convergent” technologies presently being touted as the next big thing.