Military Might Draft Satellite Radio

BOSTON (AP) -- Customers of XM Satellite Radio Inc. aren't the only ones who appreciate its digital quality and nationwide coverage. The U.S. military might draft XM's service for homeland security purposes.

XM and Raytheon Co. have jointly built a communications system that would use XM's satellites to relay information to soldiers and emergency responders during a crisis.

The Mobile Enhanced Situational Awareness Network, known as MESA, would get a dedicated channel on XM's satellites that would be accessible only on devices given to emergency personnel. The receivers would be the same as the portable ones available to consumers, with slight modifications to make them more rugged.

The military often leases transmission space on commercial satellites, but this collaboration between a massive defense contractor and a fun-loving radio network _ XM's first two satellites were dubbed ''Rock'' and ''Roll,'' and its next two might be ''Rhythm'' and ''Blues'' _ is unusual.

It began last year when engineers with Waltham, Mass.-based Raytheon Co. were looking for an inexpensive system that would help emergency responders and soldiers coordinate their actions after a natural disaster or terrorist strike. Existing communications systems for such scenarios can be bulky and expensive.

Commercial satellite radio receivers, in contrast, are lightweight, battery-powered and cost as little as $99. Their digital transmissions have enough bandwidth to carry maps and other imagery, which would be displayed on portable computers that plug into the satellite receivers. And the system can be programmed to relay information just to specific devices if need be, so individual users can get messages appropriate to their regions.

While XM's service only reaches North America, Raytheon has signed on with Worldspace Corp., a satellite radio provider in Africa, Asia and Europe, for global coverage. That system debuted in March during tsunami relief efforts in Asia, when Raytheon and Worldspace gave satellite receivers to aid agencies to coordinate their activities, said Mike Fleenor, the MESA program manager at Raytheon.

Even before that, MESA's domestic potential had attracted the interest of officials at U.S. Northern Command in Colorado Springs, Colo., which is responsibile for homeland security missions. That got MESA included in this month's Coalition Warrior Interoperability Demonstration, an annual event in which technology vendors show their wares to U.S. and allied military brass around the world.

During test runs at the event, images, data and audio were sent to an ''injection point'' at Washington, D.C.-based XM. The transmissions were relayed to space and then sent back to the portable devices that would be carried by personnel in the field.

Official assessments of MESA and other technologies shown at the demo will take months, and procurement decisions will likely come next year. But early reviews of MESA were favorable, said Christopher Lambert, Northern Command's deputy program manager for the demonstration.

Lambert said he could envision the system being useful not only for disasters but also for everyday police uses. For example, an undercover cop could have the system in his car, masked as a regular XM radio most of the time, but ready to receive messages from headquarters with the flip of a switch.

Though XM's selling point is its 130 nearly commercial-free channels of music, sports, news, talk, traffic and weather, it has waded into public service before.

XM and rival Sirius Satellite Radio Holdings Inc. each have a channel reserved for emergency broadcasts and carry Amber Alerts for missing children. After hurricanes ravaged Florida last year, XM and Sirius donated free receivers so people could get weather updates.

XM spokesman Chance Patterson said it's too early to say how much revenue MESA could bring the company, which has nearly 4 million subscribers but has struggled to become profitable. XM lost $642 million last year.

''It would easily pay for itself,'' he said.

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