AT&T Becomes A Back-Seat TV Driver

Coming soon: A new way to get Jon Stewart into the back seat of your car.

AT&T will lend its name to a service that will deliver satellite television to cars and trucks, teaming up with Dallas-based startup RaySat Broadcasting. Scheduled to launch March 2009, AT&T CruiseCast is expected to be about $28 per month for a lineup of 22 cable networks and 20 music channels.

RaySat Broadcasting, which is managing all aspects of the service with some help from AT&T, is leasing satellite transponder space from Intelsat to provide coverage across the continental U.S. The satellites will beam programming to a 3-pound, pod-like antenna affixed to a vehicle’s roof.

Inside the car, a receiver manufactured by Korea’s Hyundai Digital Technology plugs into rear-seat entertainment systems using standard RCA composite audio/video connectors.

RaySat Broadcasting believes it has solved the line-of-sight problem in delivering satellite TV to moving targets — i.e., keeping the service from flaking out when someone drives through a tunnel — by providing a 3-minute buffer of the channel being viewed, stored in the receiver’s static memory.

“If you go under a bridge or behind some trees, your TV signal won’t get interrupted,” RaySat Broadcasting president Winston Guillory said.

But the service will have several other roadblocks to clear.

For one thing, RaySat Broadcasting doesn’t have agreements for 22 channels just yet — and it’s trying hard to get sports programming, a natural for tailgaters. So far the lineup includes Disney Channel, Toon Disney, Discovery Kids, Animal Planet, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network Mobile, USA, Comedy Central, MSNBC, CNN Mobile Live and CNBC. RaySat Broadcasting also is in the midst of evaluating music services, including Music Choice, Guillory said.

The company must still build a network of car dealers and automotive aftermarket product installers.

Then there’s the potential sticker shock: The price of the antenna and receiver will be about $1,300 (not including installation fees).

Will people unload that kind of dough to get TV on wheels? Guillory argued that the CruiseCast service will provide a better programming lineup than Sirius XM Radio’s current three-channel service — Nickelodeon, Disney Channel and Cartoon Network for $6.99 per month — and is less expensive than outfitting a vehicle for DirecTV using the system from KVH Industries.

“We think we’ve found a nice sweet spot,” he said, adding that some dealers may roll the price of installation into lease terms.

But in a sour economy, it’s not clear how big that spot will be.