Are Sirius and XM Radio really terrestrial broadcasters?

Thu, 11/30/2006 - 7:00pm
Jeffrey Krauss, President of Telecommunications and Technology Policy

Those poor folks at Sirius and XM Radio. They just get finished with one FCC scandal–overpowered FM modulators that violate FCC Rules–when they have to disclose that their networks of terrestrial repeaters have been operating illegally. As it turns out, those violations are no big deal. But as I began to investigate this latest controversy, it suddenly hit me. They aren't really satellite broadcasters with terrestrial repeaters to fill in the coverage gaps. What they really are is terrestrial broadcasterswith satellites to fill in the coverage gaps.

Jeffrey Krauss

In 1997, XM Radio and Sirius each won satellite radio broadcasting licenses in an FCC auction, each paying around $85 million. The FCC called the service Satellite Digital Audio Radio Service (SDARS). From the start, SDARS was expected to need a network of terrestrial repeaters to fill in shadowed areas.

When it allocated the SDARS spectrum at 2.3 GHz, the FCC also allocated adjacent spectrum for a terrestrial service called Wireless Communications Service (WCS), and that was also auctioned. The current WCS owners include BellSouth and Sprint Nextel.

In 2001, XM and Sirius filed applications to install terrestrial repeaters, and that's when the battle began. The WCS licensees have complained that the power levels of the SDARS repeaters are too high, and out of band emissions will cause interference into their units on the adjacent frequencies.

How high are the power levels? Up to 40 kilowatts effective isotropic radiated power. For comparison purposes, that's the same order of magnitude as some FM broadcasting stations. I know, I know, the frequency bands are quite different. While an FM station at 100 MHz with that power might provide a good signal to a large metropolitan area, an SDARS station at 2.3 GHz cannot. XM and Sirius might need a dozen terrestrial SDARS transmitters to cover a city. Hence, that is what they have installed.

The SDARS folks and the WCS folks have been fighting since 2001. The FCC has never adopted any permanent technical rules for the terrestrial repeaters, so the terrestrial repeaters operate under temporary licenses, with each transmitter location and power level individually registered. There are hundreds of terrestrial repeaters that have been installed.

One reason for this lack of urgency at the FCC is that the WCS owners have never implemented their networks. (BellSouth claims to have begun WCS deployment in a few cities using WiMAX technology, but the absence of any real WiMAX equipment coupled with the pending AT&T acquisition of BellSouth makes that claim questionable.) So there is no real interference problem.

This would have been just one more typical FCC dispute, with one group of spectrum users battling another, if it were not for this latest scandal. And the traditional radio broadcasters, represented by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB), are stirring it up.

It does seem that both XM Radio and Sirius have record-keeping problems, or worse, with their terrestrial repeater installations. They both revealed in mid-October that they have been operating some repeaters either without authorization, or at unauthorized locations, or at unauthorized power levels.

And maybe nobody would have paid much attention, except that the NAB raised a big stink. The NAB is not worried about interference. Instead, these SDARS operators are competitive threats to NAB's members, the terrestrial broadcasters. And while SDARS is ostensibly a subscription service, many new cars today automatically come with XM or Sirius receivers, and drivers get several months of free service. This is particularly irritating to FM broadcasters, who are subject to obscenity rules, and who resent that subscription services like XM and Sirius are not, particularly when they give the service away for free.

Anyway, here are some details of the transgressions. Nineteen of XM's repeaters were operating without any authorization, 142 were operating at locations more than 500 feet away from their authorized location, and 221 were operating at power levels higher than authorized. Eleven of Sirius' terrestrial repeaters were at unauthorized locations. A big deal? I don't think so.

From a spectrum policy perspective, there should not have been any need for XM and Sirius to register the locations of their repeaters with the FCC. They both have exclusive nationwide licenses for their frequencies. If they cause co-channel interference, it would be only to themselves. If the FCC gets around to adopting rules for these repeaters, the rules will undoubtedly say that repeaters can be deployed anywhere, so long as they meet the as-yet-undetermined technical rules. But under the FCC's temporary authorization rules, every transmitter must be registered. So this "scandal" is much ado about nothing.

On the other hand, this controversy has revealed that XM Radio and Sirius have cleverly transmuted their satellite licenses into terrestrial broadcasting licenses. Sure, the NAB is unhappy. But there are millions of listeners who love it...and most of them don't even listen to Howard Stern.


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