A satellite radio or subscription radio (SR) is a digital radio signal that is broadcast by a communications satellite, which covers a much wider geographical range than terrestrial radio signals.
Satellite radio offers a meaningful alternative to ground-based radio services in some countries, notably the United States. Mobile services, such as Sirius, XM, and Worldspace, allow listeners to roam across an entire continent, listening to the same audio programming anywhere they go. Other services, such as Music Choice or Muzak's satellite-delivered content, require a fixed-location receiver and a dish antenna. In all cases, the antenna must have a clear view to the satellites. In areas where tall buildings, bridges, or even parking garages obscure the signal, repeaters can be placed to make the signal available to listeners.
Radio services are usually provided by commercial ventures and are subscription-based. The various services are proprietary signals, requiring specialized hardware for decoding and playback. Providers usually carry a variety of news, weather, sports, and music channels, with the music channels generally being commercial-free.
In areas with a relatively high population density, it is easier and less expensive to reach the bulk of the population with terrestrial broadcasts. Thus in the UK and some other countries, the contemporary evolution of radio services is focused on Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) services or HD Radio, rather than satellite radio.
Satellite radio uses the 2.3 GHz S band in North America and generally shares the 1.4 GHz L band with local Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) stations elsewhere. It is a type of direct broadcast satellite and is strong enough that it requires no satellite dish to receive. Curvature of the earth limits the reach of the signal, but due to the high orbit of the satellites, two or three are usually sufficient to provide coverage for an entire continent.
Local repeaters similar to broadcast translator boosters enable signals to be available even if the view of the satellite is blocked, for example, by skyscrapers in a large town. Major tunnels can also have repeaters. This method also allows local programming to be transmitted such as traffic and weather in most major metropolitan areas, as of March 2004.
Each receiver has an Electronic Serial Number (ESN) Radio ID to identify it. When a unit is activated with a subscription, an authorization code is sent in the digital stream telling the receiver to allow access to the blocked channels. Most services have at least one "free to air" or "in the clear" (ITC) channel as a test. For example, Sirius uses channel 184, Sirius Weather & Emergency.
Most (if not all) of the systems in use now are proprietary, using different codecs for audio data compression, different modulation techniques, and/or different methods for encryption and conditional access.
Like other radio services, satellite radio also transmits program-associated data (PAD or metadata), with the artist and title of each song or program and possibly the name of the channel