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Digital Radio Turns Up CES Volume

The developers of satellite and terrestrial digital radio technologies will wage aggressive educational campaigns at CES to update retailers about their product and programming plans, conduct live and simulated broadcasts, and display sample radios.

The Digital Radio Pavilion at the Sands convention center will be the focus of their activities, but sample radios will also turn up in the booths of various manufacturers, including Alpine, Clarion, Delco and Pioneer.

To demonstrate its terrestrial in-band on-channel (IBOC) technology, USA Digital Radio (USADR) will team up with a local FM station to conduct live broadcasts that dealers will be able to hear on sample receivers.

Rival IBOC developer Lucent doesn’t plan live demos. For their part, neither do satellite radio providers Sirius Satellite Radio (formerly CD Radio) and XM Satellite Radio, given that they haven’t launched their satellites, but both companies will play back recorded samples of their planned programming.

Here’s what the terrestrial proponents plan at CES:

Lucent: the IBOC developer will distribute literature through two of its licensees: Recoton at the Sands and Harman Kardon at a hotel suite. Lucent will also meet offsite with its customers.

USADR: A Las Vegas FM station will transmit digital stereo to a prototype USADR home receiver in the Digital Radio Pavilion at the Sands and at Kenwood’s booth in the LVCC. A receiver-equipped demo vehicle will be available to demonstrate on-the-road reception to manufacturers and select retailers.

USADR envisions home and car receivers being available simultaneously at launch.

Here’s what the satellite proponents plan:

Sirius Satellite Radio: In the pavilion, demo head units in vehicles and in listening stations will play back samples of 50 to 60 channels of planned programming.

The company’s hardware partners will supply sample head units that will let attendees switch among the programs. It wasn’t clear whether the program material would be recorded onto CDs for playback in the units.

Sirius also plans to show off its on-air talent, who will conduct mock programs, said marketing VP Terrence Sweeney.

Digital switching, routing and editing equipment on display will “show how we take a couple million titles and make our service happen.”

Sirius will also have a presence in all of its licensees’ booths with freestanding kiosks or with displays integrated into the licensees’ booths, said Sweeney. “Most of our partners will have demo units to demo the service offerings and how you will interact with it [the radio].”

XM Satellite Radio: The company originally planned to demonstrate only four of its planned 100-channel lineup but now plans to demonstrate up to 10 channels.

The programming will be recorded on CDs for playback through listening stations and through car stereo systems modified to let users switch among the programs. Some of the vehicles will play back five to seven channels, and some listening stations will play up to 10.

Two of the channels are called XM Originals because “there are no formats like them on radio,” said Dan Murphy, VP of retail marketing and distribution.

One of them, called Fine Tuning, plays classical-orchestra versions of songs by artists such as Frank Zappa to expand the potential audience for classical music, he said.

The other XM Original is 20 On 20, which each day will play back the top 20 songs requested by listeners during the day.

In the pavilion, three demo vehicles and listening stations will feature head units that display a mock XM controller. They will be connected to mockups of remote XM receivers and antennas.

XM listening stations will also appear in the Clarion and Delco booths.

Sirius plans to begin offering 100 channels of subscription programming to consumers at the end of the fourth quarter in 2000.

XM Satellite plans an early-2001 commercial launch of its 100-channel subscription service.

As for terrestrial service, its fate awaits FCC proceedings already under way. The FCC set a late-January deadline for the first round of comments on how terrestrial service should be implemented.

Lucent’s Ben Benjamin, senior product development VP, said he hopes the FCC will rule by the end of 2000. If the FCC mandates Lucent’s system at that time, he said, about 200 radio stations could be transmitting digital programs on a commercial basis within months, and receivers could be available in the second quarter of 2001.

In other category news, Sirius Satellite Radio will raise another $200 million in capital through the planned sale of junior convertible preferred stock to Blackstone Capital Partners in a deal expected to close in mid-January.

With the purchase, Sirius will have raised $1.2 billion in capital, enough to cover all startup costs through the launch of commercial service, a spokesman said. Service is expected to begin at the end of the fourth quarter in 2000.