So Sez Me

I signed up to be a guinea pig for the “free” L.A. beta launch of Sezmi earlier this year. Free meant putting down a credit card so I could pay $150 for the hardware and be billed monthly for a channel package later on.

“If at the end of the pilot, you love your new Sezmi personal TV service—and we know you will—just tell us you want to subscribe and you will qualify to purchase the Sezmi system for $149.98, half off the introductory price of $299.99,” my invitation to the ball said.

I have learned through much trial and mostly error about subscription services. In most cases, charges rack up while you’re on hold with customer service, then billing, then subscriptions, then customer service.... You may get reimbursed within the current geologic epoch if you’re lucky. Sezmi might have been responsive; I wasn’t taking a chance. I called the company and asked for a gratis review period. No dice, a somewhat condescending rep told me.

Fine. I didn’t care about securing a freebie. I have enough cables, boxes, screens and electronics in my house to start a Radio Shack. I just wanted to see if the thing worked. The premise of Sezmi—aggregated programming delivered on spectrum leased from TV stations—was very much like that of USDTV. That service launched in 2004 with 30 cable and over-the-air channels for $20 a month. It amassed 16,000 subscribers before filing for bankruptcy in 2006.

Sezmi adds a monstrous hard drive for recording shows and a broadband interface for fee-based, on-demand content. It also has the backing of investors who’ve put up a reported $78 million. After launching in Los Angeles and San Francisco, Sezmi secured bandwidth in 10 more markets—bandwidth ironically sought by the FCC for broadband service.

Nonetheless, I checked into Sezmi again. I filled out the availability application on their Web site and discovered that for $300 up front and $5 a month, I can get exactly the channels that I get now for free. The free ones probably even look better because they’re using the bulk of their assigned spectrum. As for on-demand content via broadband, Sezmi says the download speed must be least 1.5 Mbps at all times. I just logged 1.25 Mbps for my alleged 3.0 Mbps service at mid-day. says that’ll bring me an 800 MB movie in around 85 minutes. The 23 cable channels for $20 might be a draw, but I remain skeptical of Sezmi’s picture quality.

The concept seems like a good idea, just like it did when USDTV launched. What Sezmi needs now is a serious leap in video compression and a few whizz-bang proprietary features. Without those, it’s hard to see many people shelling out $300 for something they can get for far less up front.