Companies Roll Out Antennas Sized to Fit on Vehicle Roofs
750 Movies in the Backseat
By MICHELLE HIGGINS Staff Reporter of THE WALL STREET JOURNAL February 24, 2005; Page D1
Electronics makers have an answer for parents who are tired of listening to Barney reruns and the Lion King playing on their backseat DVD players: 100 channels. In the latest step toward transforming sport-utility vehicles and minivans into full-blown living rooms, electronics manufacturers are rolling out satellite-TV antennas that strap to the roof. A range of new devices -- which can weigh as much as 45 pounds and pull in live TV almost anywhere in the U.S. -- are starting to hit the market, as new technology enables the dimensions to shrink somewhat.
Next month RaySat Inc., a major manufacturer of satellite antennas, plans to enter the market with a large, pancake-shaped device that can track satellites and can receive DirecTV Group Inc. and Dish Network signals across most of the U.S. In April mobile-electronics giant Audiovox Corp. will start offering its own version in select markets. Winegard Co. says it plans to introduce its own gear in April.
The manufacturer that mostly had the market to itself, KVH Industries Inc., is upgrading its services in the face of the competition. The company recently announced that its system, TracVision A5, available since 2003, will receive a new premium movie-channel package from DirecTV and Starz Entertainment Group LLC that offers 750 movies a month on 13 digital movie channels.
At a time when safety advocates are concerned that drivers already have too many distractions, the introduction of a full-scale entertainment system into the car is sure to have its detractors. To date, the only other way to get live TV in a car was to put up some rabbit ears in there and hope for the best. On-the-road satellite TV paid off recently for Warren Raymond of Fort Lauderdale, Fla. When he and his two young sons, ages 8 and 12, got stuck in traffic on their way to an NFL game a few months ago, they were able to catch the first half on the boob tube. "That was a big help," he says. "Those tickets were expensive."
So are the rooftop antennas. They can cost upward of $2,000, and that isn't counting monthly subscription fees of $30 to $40. It also doesn't include the price of an in-car TV screen, which can run a couple of hundred dollars. The antennas are so big, they won't fit on normal cars, only SUVs or minivans. The suggested retail price for Winegard's soon-to-be-available RoadTrip XLP will be $1,995, while RaySat and KVH's antennas each are priced at $2,295.
Services such as these have been available for boats, planes and recreational vehicles for several years, but until recently the antennas were simply too big to fit on the top of passenger vehicles. But in recent years, antenna technology has shrunk the devices to manageable sizes.
Meantime, electronics makers are looking for ways to distinguish themselves from rivals as cars increasingly come equipped with any number of high-tech devices -- from navigation systems to satellite radios -- straight from the factory. It is also a way to capitalize on the robust sales of video screens in cars. In 2004, about 3.4 million DVD entertainment systems for autos were shipped, up from just 1.1 million in 2002, according to Telematics Research Group Inc. in Minnetonka, Minn. By 2010 the company expects that number to nearly triple to 9.2 million in projected shipments.
Next year the mobile satellite-TV field could get even more crowded. Two of the biggest satellite-radio providers, Sirius Satellite Radio Inc. and XM Satellite Radio Holdings Inc., are working on their own service. Last month at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Sirius announced that it will launch during the second half of 2006 an in-car video service dedicated to children's programming. At the same show, Delphi Corp. announced a deal with cable-TV company Comcast Corp. to develop a system for downloading video from the cable provider onto a hard drive in the car. After capturing cartoons, sports shows, movies and other video over a Wi-Fi network, Comcast subscribers could watch the shows on the road.
Antenna makers say they are working on next-generation models that are slimmer and have more capabilities. RaySat, for instance, says it has developed a satellite antenna that also can provide Internet access to anyone riding in the car. (Basically, the antenna also beams out a high-speed Wi-Fi connection inside the car, so anyone with, say, a laptop with a wireless card can surf while on the road.) That antenna is expected to start at nearly $3,500, not including service charges, when it becomes available in the third quarter.
During a recent test drive of KVH's system, attached to a Nissan Pathfinder, the device (about the size of a coffee-table top) added about five inches of height to the vehicle. From a screen in the back seat, it was possible to scroll through more than 100 channels using a wireless remote control, while driving around New York City streets. Overall, the reception was good. But in areas with tall trees or skyscrapers, it was spotty, interrupting some key moments in an episode of SpongeBob SquarePants. Essentially, the antenna requires a clear view of the southern sky, which is where the DirecTV satellite is located.
The market for mobile satellite TV remains small. Just 7,500 antennas sold in 2004, according to estimates by Frost & Sullivan, a market-research firm. That is out of about 240 million consumer vehicles on the road. Analysts say they don't expect to see auto makers selling the systems until the antennas come down in price and get small enough to be hidden away into the roof of a vehicle. Currently, the antennas fasten to a vehicle's roof rack, which also may limit use of the rack for hauling other gear.
Mr. Raymond, the Fort Lauderdale resident who missed the first half of the football game, says his two boys, Michael and Jordan, love having the TV in the car. "They're in there on the weekends," he says. "It's like a tree house for them."