Satellite Radio Super-Globality

A few months ago, my wife started a job that has a monster commute across the NYC metro area. She spends a lot of time in the car, so as an anniversary present I got her XM radio to make the driving time a little more bearable. She seems to like it.

A few days after installing it, I was bragging about the device a little with my in-laws in Bombay. In the midst of my laborious explanation of how it works, they stopped me and said 'hey, what's the big deal? We already have one of those at home.' Dude, no way? Way. In some cases, the Indian market for consumer goods is actually a bit ahead of the western one. Satellite radio turns out to be one of them (the other space where that is true is in mobile phones).

Worldspace Satellite Radio has been around for seven years, and has had India in its service range for five of them. But it's only this year that it has made a major push to gain subscribers in the Indian market (coinciding with a stock IPO). According to a recent Rediff report, Worldspace currently has about 40,000 customers in India, and 63,000 worldwide (compare to 4 million XM Radio subscribers and 1.1 million Sirius subscribers in the U.S.). Worldspace in fact predates American satellite radio (they originally owned XM Radio), though it seems they've now been eclipsed by it in terms of subscriber base. The big news this summer is that XM Radio has invested $25 million back into its parent company.

Worldspace broadcasts from two geostationary satellites, and covers an area that includes 4 billion people, including the majority of Asia (East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia), the Middle East, Africa, and Southern and Western Europe. (See the full coverage map here)

The questionable business strategy and management of this particular company probably isn't that important. More interesting is the potential of the medium as a whole: 4 billion people is a lot of potential listeners, especially considering they are being reached with just two satellites. If other companies enter the space, and put up their own satellites, the industry could explode across Asia. Among other things, it could potentially be an impressive engine for globalization: because satellite broadcasts cover huge swaths of earth on limited bandwidth, they can't be specialized very much by region. Thus, all of South Asia gets the same broadcast. Interesting possibilities...

Satellite bandwidth is very limited, so the number of channels offered generally isn't that impressive. People in major Indian metros are not likely to be blown away by Worldspace's Indian selections (there are about 12 South Asia oriented channels), though they might appreciate the international news and music offerings. People in smaller Indian towns -- where the regular FM offerings are still a little meager -- will probably be much more interested in subcscribing. (Too bad Worldspace's recent marketing push is directed exclusively at the big metro markets...)

A major limitation to Worldspace satellite radio currently is the receiver, which is large and bulky, and not meant to be portable. Indians who buy it are probably people with big stereo systems at home. A portable unit is being developed along the lines of the Delphi MyFi (hopefully cheaper in its Indian incarnation), but until it's released, the biggest potential part of the Indian market isn't being served. (Update: In order for portability to be feasible, the company needs to build a network of terrestrial repeaters, which it has not yet done. So it may take a while...)

More on how Satellite Radio works here. Also see the Wikipedia entry on Satellite Radio.