Tag: TV

Review: Sezmi delivers OTA plus OTT

Customers are doing more than ever with their fast Sonic.net Fusion service, with video being a primary application.

I’ve written previously about OTT, or “over the top”, which is the delivery of video entertainment via, or over the top of, an Internet connection.  More and more consumers and adding over the top solutions to their living room, or simply replacing pay TV with a box that delivers content OTT.

I’ve been testing a number of OTT solutions, and this review of the Sezmi OTA+OTT solution is the first of a couple articles to come on this topic. (Disclaimer: I mentioned Sezmi in passing on Twitter a couple months ago, and won a free unit. I purchased a Roku and Boxee, and will be posting reviews of each here shortly.)

The part many of us miss after “cutting the cord” on pay TV is local real time TV channels. On demand content is great, but there is a ton of content on the local channels, plus news and sports that you can’t easily duplicate “over the top”.

Sezmi brings these back, using an old technology: OTA, or “off the air” – meaning an antenna. This arcane antenna thing is like magic – it plucks television signals out of the air! It’s an amazing technology that my entire generation has simply forgotten ever existed.

That box you see looming in the background in this image is the Sezmi phased array digital TV antenna. Sezmi elegantly merges off the air local digital TV signals with a well equipped digital video recorder, and stirs in a mix of OTT on-demand content too.

This is the best of both worlds in many ways, and it’s a tidy solution. You could cobble together something similar: a good quality HD antenna, plus a TiVo, plus perhaps a Samsung or Sony TV that connects to YouTube. But building that configuration wouldn’t be easy, and the TiVo costs $19.99/mo, and requires a two year commitment (or, $299 for a larger unit, $19.99/mo for a minimum of one year.)  Either way, it’s not a complete solution (no included antenna, and no OTT), and it’s expensive.

Sezmi includes a huge 1TB video recorder and a nice looking bookshelf OTA antenna, designed to look like a speaker, wrapped in black cloth.  It delivers on-demand OTT content (much of it free), YouTube, movie rentals and more.  To make it easy to use, Sezmi includes an interface that gives each member of the household a button on the remote that leads to their own view of their entertainment. It learns what each person likes to watch, then Sezmi records content based upon your tastes.

Sezmi is cheaper than a TiVo, now $149 for the hardware, and the service which draws it all together is $4.99/mo. (Customers in LA can opt to add a small stack of cable channels, delivered over the Internet, for $15 additional.)

Sezmi isn’t perfect – it had some trouble during setup recognizing the IP it had obtained from my DHCP server.  (I spent ten minutes troubleshooting before I worked out that a reboot fixed; duh.) Sezmi also doesn’t play Netflix or Hulu Plus at this time.  It would be nice to see these integrated into their all-in-one interface. If cable channels like ESPN, TBS, TNT, CNN and Discovery are critical for you, an all OTT/OTA solution probably won’t have all of the content you want. (If you want all this, you aren’t a candidate for “cutting the cord”, you need pay TV. If that’s you, we’ll be happy to help you get set up with Sonic.net DirecTV.)

For Sezmi to work, you need to be in a location where you can receive an off the air signal with enough channels that it is worthwhile.  Here in Santa Rosa, Sezmi only picks up one channel, KRCB/PBS, and as a result, it isn’t much use.  But for customers in the Bay Area, it’s far better. All the major networks like ABC, NBC, CBS and Fox are all broadcast from Sutro Tower in San Francisco, and can be received in a broad area. Sezmi’s website will help you determine which channels you can receive at your address.

If you live in the Bay Area, and if broadcast network content is as important as OTT, the Sezmi is an elegant and cost effective solution that could help keep your entertainment costs in check. Pair it up with Sonic.net Fusion for a great broadband+phone+TV solution.


Boxee what's new screen

A coworker recently hassled me for my use of acronyms without explanation. It’s something that I try not to do, but the various acronyms of our industry boil down large concepts into just a few letters, so sometimes it’s unavoidable.

This posting is intended to address the big topic behind the small acronym “OTT”.

OTT is video content delivered “over the top” of Internet access, without association with the Internet access provider themselves.

Examples of OTT video include online services like Netflix On Demand, Hulu, MLB.TV.  The OTT video label can be extended to any video content, so I suppose YouTube might count, but generally OTT refers to episode or feature length content, positioned as an alternative to conventional television.

OTT video is the anathema of those who offer subscription television, and it’s one of the core items that drives the debate around network neutrality and usage and speed caps.

Most service providers have created “triple play” bundles of Internet, telephone and television, and each of these three revenue streams make up an important part of the total revenue stream for these operators. For the video portion, the national average household spending for television is nearly $75 (source: Centris, 2009 data.)  OTT video threatens this, which is particularly painful for system operators because the video component is generally the most expensive of the three components of the triple play.

If your broadband provider is also selling you TV, their concern is that if they provide you with “too much” broadband, that OTT video will flourish and you will stop buying expensive TV in favor of a less expensive broadband only service.

There is an inherent conflict of interest here, and it is clear that industry wide, OTT video influences the choices by providers to limit speed and cap consumption. This is particularly obvious for cable providers, who have the most video customer and revenue to lose.

The debate about network neutrality is quite clear in the dialog about OTT: why would a provider who sells you TV want to give you enough bandwidth to replace that TV service?  This is particularly interesting in light of recent decisions by the Supreme Court, which found that the FCC does not have the authority to censure a major cable provider for tampering with their customers Internet traffic, in this case Bittorrent, which is presumed to be mostly television and movie downloads.

So, all of that aside, is OTT ready for prime time?

The biggest issue in OTT video seems to be delivery to the sofa rather than the desktop. It is getting much easier today, with multiple solutions to address this problem.  A few of of the key enablers:

Faster Wi-Fi. 802.11N appears to finally deliver enough bandwidth for HD content streaming to the living room without cables.

Netflix on demand can now be viewed on a growing list of devices, some of which you might already have connected to your own TV. Samsung Bluray players, the XBox 360, Playstation II, and even the Wii will stream Netflix today.

Dedicated hardware solutions like the Apple TV, Roku, Popcorn Hour, and the new Boxee from Dlink all promise more powerful and easier access to OTT content. Most TVs today also offer a VGA connection for easy hook-up to a laptop, so buying a couple cables (video and audio) to connect your laptop to your television can be a low cost way to get started.

Finally, TVs are becoming far more connected themselves, which in the long run may eliminate the need for an external box. Samsung, LG and Sony all have connected television products today in various states of usefulness.

What about content? Can I watch my shows?


Today there are more and more OTT video offerings, and more mainstream content. For movies and many television shows, there is good availability from Netflix and iTunes (Apple TV). Sports are becoming available, for example the subscription offerings from MLB.tv.

Hulu is worth some discussion because it provides some great current television content, but it’s tough to view on your television.  In my household there are five different devices that will stream Netflix (no kidding!), but only the laptop will play Hulu.  This is because Hulu content is licensed for PC playback only, so they are restrictive. This means that one OTT hardware solution won’t let you view all content – you may need to seek out different solutions for different types of content.

Boxee may solve some of these problems – it behaves just like a web browser, and Hulu today can be viewed on Boxee, but that seems to be a constant game of cat and mouse, with Hulu shutting out Boxee playback and Boxee making changes to allow playback again. End-users are the pawns in this game, and it can be frustrating.

As a result of all of this confusion, I think that most users first experience with OTT will probably be Netflix, but once viewers get a taste for content on demand without a $75 cable bill, I suspect that more and more of us will jump through the hoops required for a relatively complete OTT video viewing experience.

Finally, OTT video isn’t always free. There are free services like Hulu, though they announced today that the most recent five episodes of shows will be free, but full access to all archived shows will cost $9.95 monthly.  MLB.tv is $19.95 a month. Apple’s iTunes store for Apple TV offers shows ala carte for $2 to $3. You can also buy tv and movies from Amazon as downloadable content.

There is also lots of free content, and solutions like the Roku and Boxee make it easier to find it. You can also play most content that you download to your PC, plus videos you make yourself, because these hardware boxes will play back a multitude of video file types.

Some interfaces to OTT video are also bringing a social component, allowing you to connect with friends, recommend and rate shows and share comments. This may turn television viewing into a much more engaged activity. (Today the theme seems to be watching live TV while fondling a smartphone and reading and writing tweets with others watching the same show live. Tweets fly during live shows; “Can you believe that outfit! #oscars”.  OTT with a social component may make this more useful and interesting.)

So in summary – what’s the “do it all” viewing solution? Today there is not one standalone set top box that will view all content. The upcoming Boxee hardware from D-Link may come close, but meanwhile you’d need at least two or three devices in order to access all the OTT content that is available. A laptop with a video and audio cable is a great start though if you aren’t sure what solution will be a fit for you.

I’ll predict that in five to ten years, subscription television as it is today will be suffering, and content providers will move wholeheartedly to OTT.  The Internet has disrupted industries from retail to travel, and the only barrier to it doing the same to television has been bandwidth.

Comcast price goes up, Sonic.net DirecTV price goes down

dtv-logo-smallWith news about Comcast’s fall rate hikes, (PressDemocrat: Comcast raises rates again: 43 percent since ’03) I’m really pleased to announce that Sonic.net DirecTV new customer pricing has just dropped by $5 monthly.

With introductory pricing and our $10/mo broadband bundle, you can get into a Sonic.net DirecTV package for only $19.99/mo now!  That includes free HD or a free DVR (digital video recorder.)

Compare this to your last Comcast bill!  With our fall DirecTV package, you save $36 per month for 12 months then save $10 per month for the next 6 months (regularly $55.99/mo.)

Big the big win is really our installation and customer service.  You probably know how amazing our technical support group is, and our Sonic.net DirecTV installers are just as dedicated.  Here’s some great comments I got last week from a customer, Claudia Fiori:

The reason I am writing is because we had the pleasure of having Karl install our DIRECTV the other day. He was amazingly knowledgeable, warm, friendly, professional, and most of all skilled and did a quality, top-notch installation. I only wish I had left Comcast when Sonic first became involved with DIRECTV. Oh well, better late than never. Anyway, I wanted you to know what a great employee you have in Karl, and maybe the next time you see him, you can give him a kind word from me.

My warmest regards,
Claudia Fiori

We’ve got a break in the rain, so now is a great time to make the switch.  Click on Sonic.net DirecTV to get started!

P.s.: Thank you Karl!

Sonic.net DirecTV DoublePlay feature

dtv-doubleplay-smallJust in time for football season.  There’s a cool new feature available on the Sonic.net DirecTV service: DoublePlay. This lets you swap back and forth between two shows, without losing your paused position.

All Sonic.net DirecTV HD DVRs and R22 models are now enabled with the feature. Customers can now watch, pause, fast-forward and rewind two shows airing at the same time and not miss a thing!

  1. Go to the first channel you wish to watch and press the DOWN arrow on your remote
  2. The following message appears “Press DOWN again to start DoublePlay™”. Press DOWN again
  3. Once you start DoublePlay™, your receiver begins storing up to 90 minutes on both channels
  4. Press the DOWN button to switch between channels
  5. Press the record key on a program currently being viewed to save a copy in your Playlist

See the Sonic.net DirecTV web page for more product information.