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Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

May 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

Ex-Clearwire exec, others launching bold new TV broadcasting service

This could be huge, if it doesn’t confuse consumers who are already struggling to sort out their digital TV options.

A San Francisco-area startup called Sezmi today is unveiling its ambitious plans for a nationwide TV subscription service that will compete with cable, satellite and broadband TV services.

The hardware:


Details are still a little vague, but the company has spent the past two years developing a system that uses a combination of digital TV spectrum and broadband delivery to provide most of the programming available from cable companies, plus movie rentals, all available on demand.

Sezmi won’t sell directly to consumers; Instead the service will be offered through phone and broadband companies that want to add a TV service to their bundles of voice and Internet access.

Executives I interviewed last week didn’t name distribution partners, but I’m guessing likely suspects include Qwest, Clearwire and EarthLink. They didn’t share pricing, but said fees should be comparable or less than satellite and cable services.

Subscribers will lease a 1 terabyte, Linux-based set-top box that’s constantly refreshed with new content in the highest available definition. The box connects to a powered antenna the size of a midsize bookshelf audio speaker. It also includes a remote control with buttons for different people in the household — when they push their button, the screen menu displays a collection of their preferred shows. That also lets the system target advertising not just to households, but specific viewers.

The service piggybacks on unused digital spectrum held by TV stations across the country. As partial return for use of those airwaves, Sezmi is letting local stations build local portals on the service — basically a channel where the local station displays a mix of news and ads.

That spectrum lets the service beam content directly to the set-top box, avoiding possible bandwidth limitations of home Internet connections. A broadband connection is still used, though, to trickle down some content and to upload viewing information.

Lots of companies have tried to build next-generation TV systems based on fancy set-top boxes. Microsoft, for example, has spent billions and more than a decade going after the market.

But Sezmi founders say they’ll succeed because the technology is ripe. They have a complete iTuneseque system and consumers are unsatisified with today’s TV services. The company has also lined up partnerships with broadcasters, networks and distributors and should be available to 100 million U.S. homes within a year or so.

I’m guessing the set-top box is just a start. If they get a foothold with consumers, I’ll bet it’ll start pushing the TV service platform into other devices. Co-founder Phil Wiser used to be a leader of the PlayStation business, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re talking to Sony about incorporating the system into the PlayStation 4 or 5.

Wiser said they are thinking ahead about opportunities to extend the service beyond the TV and into other devices including computers in the home.

“Ultimately using the PC as another screen for the service is definitely of interest to us,” said Wiser, an Internet music service pioneer who co-founded Liquid Audio and later served as chief technology officer at Sony Corporation of America.

Sezmi’s co-founder and chief executive is Buno Pati, a serial entrepreneur with experience in the semiconductor and video industries.

David Allred, a former vice president of Clearwire, is senior vice president of marketing and product management.

Others involved with the company include former Viacom Productions president, Perry Simon, and US Digital Television co-founder Richard Johnson.

Here are images of the remote and a sample portal for Seattle’s KOMO-TV.





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