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Sezmi says: so far, so good

November 13, 2008 | 12:01 am

Jon_healey_logoSezmi, a would-be competitor to cable and satellite television, seemed a bit too good to be true when it was announced in April -- a digital hybrid of over-the-air signals and broadband transmissions delivering live and on-demand TV for a substantially lower price than other pay-TV services. But if its vision eventually proves to be chimerical, at least its technology appears solid. The company has announced the successful completion of technical trials with three local broadcasters in Seattle -- Fisher Communications, which owns the local ABC and Univision affiliates; Tribune Broadcasting, which owns local Fox and MyNetwork affiliates (and is a corporate sibling of the Los Angeles Times); and Daystar Television Network, a local religious broadcaster. At the same time, the company said, it has finished building its national TV system. Its operations center in Florida will beam content via satellite to Sezmi's hubs in local markets. From there, programs will be delivered either through the digital TV airwaves or via broadband, to be tuned in by a special set-top box in customers' homes.

Sezmi, cable TV, satellite TV, multichannel, broadband Sezmi President Phil Wiser, a former chief technical officer for Sony, said the company has been broadcasting in Seattle for the last several months to employees and "very friendly" consumers. It will now start a larger trial run, with a goal of launching to the general public in a couple of markets in the first half of 2009. The main lesson from the tests so far, Wiser said, is that "we want to get this into more consumers' hands faster."

A recession might seem like a poor time to launch a company, let alone one that plans to compete with established incumbents. But Wiser said the company and its distribution partners -- an as-yet unnamed slate of broadband providers and retailers -- believe the downturn could actually help Sezmi. People will be looking for ways to cut their cable or satellite bills and stop paying for programming they never watch, which should make them more receptive to Sezmi, Wiser said. Another boon: the emergence of and other free online sources of television and movies on demand, which Sezmi plans to integrate into its offering. By combining broadband and over-the-air signals, Sezmi closes the PC-TV gap and blurs the distinction between programs on the Web and those on the networks.

Again, it remains to be seen whether Sezmi can make its model work in a real deployment. Broadcasters have been eager to generate more revenue from their investment in digital, yet at least four previous companies have tried in vain to use the local stations' extra channel capacity for commercial services. And all the largest broadband providers are trying to sell their own pay-TV products, which may dampen their enthusiasm for Sezmi. On that score, Wiser said, Sezmi has a significant advantage over the telcos' fiber-optic-fueled TV services: it runs on ordinary copper, not fiber-optics, so requires a much smaller up-front investment.

Image of Sezmi equipment is courtesy of the Sezmi website.