Satellite TV beams 140 channels into your SUV

By Earle Eldridge, USA TODAY

First, there were navigation systems using satellite guidance for cars. Then there was satellite radio. Now you can get satellite TV with 140 channels in your SUV, minivan or large sedan.

While it’s feeding a seemingly unquenchable thirst for entertainment in cars, the technology also raises concerns about growing in-car distractions for drivers.

KVH Industries, maker of mobile electronics, began selling a satellite TV system called TracVision A5 for SUVs and minivans in September. The system includes a large, roof-mounted, pancake-shaped antenna, 31 inches in diameter and 5 inches high.

KVH’s suggested selling price is $2,295, but retailers are selling it for less. KVH has a deal with DirecTV to offer programming for as little as $4.95 a month for current DirecTV subscribers and $39.95 for new users.

The company believes there’s a market for satellite TV in cars because about 30% of the 5.6 million new SUVs and minivans sold each year come equipped with TV monitors and DVD or video cassette players. “People like the idea of live programming,” says KVH spokesman Chris Watson.

But traffic-safety experts and manufacturers warn that monitors should be placed so drivers can’t see them.

Even if the driver can’t see the monitor, the addition of another distraction worries safety advocates. “We are not encouraging it,” says Jonathan Adkins, a spokesman for the Governors Highway Safety Association. “Is having it in the vehicle going to improve safety? No.”

Warren Raymond of Coral Gables, Fla., had his satellite TV system installed in the dashboard of his Lincoln Navigator SUV. He says he usually just listens to it but admits that he sometimes glances at the screen.

A real estate broker whose company develops supermarkets, Raymond spends up to four hours a day on the road. He likes to catch the news and The Oprah Winfrey Show. “Sometimes my wife gets jealous because she calls and I can’t talk until they go to commercial break,” he says.

KVH has made a satellite TV system for boats and recreational vehicles since the 1990s and has sold about 56,000 for those uses. It shipped 1,700 of the car-based units in the fourth quarter last year but hasn’t released current figures. TracVision is available at about 800 locations nationwide, including electronics stores.

The system appears most popular in Florida, Texas and California. Getting a signal in Manhattan or other large cities with skyscrapers can be a challenge. “The signal comes in great unless you’re downtown or someplace with a lot of tall trees,” Raymond says.

Other manufacturers — including auto-supplier Delphi and Winegard, the largest makers of satellite TV dishes — are considering satellite TV systems for cars. Sirius satellite radio is considering a TV version for cars.

But until the price and the antenna get smaller, satellite TV in cars won’t have much mass appeal, says Dan Benjamin, an analyst at ABI Research. “The overall price and size of the antenna makes it a good niche product,” he says.