August 01, 2007

Satellite Communications – Not As Heavenly As You Would Think

In January 2007 my beloved wife, HRH the QM (Her Royal Highness the Queen Mother for you new readers) got a new car. A brand spanking new Chrysler Town & Country Van. One of its salient and most attractive features was the Sirius radio. While the thought of paying for what has always been free was not in my mind, HRH gladly signed up for a two year subscription. Not only has she been reliving her past via the 60s channel but is re-building her knowledge of Broadway hits and her passion for Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra.

Whilst in her car (a rare occurrence since HRH would much rather criticize than drive) I am of course a prisoner of her music. As it turns out, over time I rather liked the idea of no commercials and being able to listen to a particular kind of music. With the offer of equipment and subscription as a Father’s Day gift I thought I would give it a try because silly me, I figured since this was a popular consumer item it must be pretty easy technology to deal with.

I should have harkened back to my tactical days in the Army when a key part of any exercise was trying to establish communications. For those of you who don’t know what that means – here’s the picture. Let’s start with the fact that there were no cell phones. If you wanted a phone you brought your own phones, wire and switchboards. Oh yes, batteries for the phones as well. Remarkably these field phones connected into a SB-22 Field Switchboard (see for a picture) worked pretty well.

FM Tactical radio – well that was another matter. Not really reliable and line of sight these things always seemed to be finicky. Never mind that the crypto equipment ran so hot that one day we had to pack it into a plastic bag and surround it with ice in order for it to work. Rounding out the communications menagerie was Radio Teletype. It was the SMS of its day which was quite some time ago.

Flinging forward into 2007 I bought appropriate gear for the house and car from Circuit City. The installation while more or less painless was not without its wrinkles. Turns out my Lexus 300 required a special type of wired installation because wireless wouldn’t work. All in all it’s working OK. Of course there are spots on the highway where the local PBS radio station ‘jams’ or overpowers my signal, but I live with that.

The inside rig is another matter. While in the back of my mind I knew I needed to have an antenna it never occurred to me that I would actually have to go out on the roof to position it and that it would be a two person job. I had limited success putting on the window sill, but too flaky to rely on. So now I’m waiting to fit into HRH’s schedule planning on her being the inside sound tester. Fortunately the inside rig also serves as an iPod stand so it has some utility notwithstanding the SIRIUS inside debacle.

Bottom line – no communication technology is completely reliable and redundancy is the key to success or in this case – musical enjoyment.

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