FIFA World Cup streaming disaster gets worse for Aussie telco

Spark boss Simon Moutter says his company has yet to decide which technology platform it will use to stream the 2019 Rugby World Cup

UPDATE / June 22: Optus' FIFA World Cup streaming disaster has gone from bad to worse.

The Aussie telco has now handed all group games to free-to-air broadcaster SBS.

And everyone who paid to watch the cup through Optus' online streaming service is receiving a refund. The entire event will now be free as the telco desparately tries to get back onside with Australian sports fans.

The group stage wraps on June 29, buying the telco extra time to try to get its online streaming service working properly under World Cup load.

After the France-Australia game blacked out on many viewers on Saturday night, Optus initially handed over coverage to SBS for 48 hours or six games.

Spark, which has 15 months to prepare for the Rugby World Cup 2019, ways it's watching events for any lessons it can learn.

Optus has blamed three factors: "unprecedented demand," a "critical failure" with an element of its CDN (content delivery network) and problems with Apple devices for people who are accessing Optus Sport from another telco network. If the latter problem is indeed a factor, customers will be wondering why pre-tournament testing did not pick it up.

Spark, which says it will charge around $100 for Rugby World Cup 2019 coverage, stands to make a fortune if everything goes to plan. But as everyone across the Tasman from Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull down rages against Optus, it also now has an illustration of the commercial and reputational damage if things go wrong.

Spark has yet to say what it paid for World Cup rights, how much it will spend preparing a platform for content delivery, or even which platform it will use. Managing director Simon Moutter says it will not reveal costs until its first results after the September 2019 tournament.

Investors will be also be wondering: did the potential costs just increase?

The error message that has met Aussie soccer fans night after night. 2.1 million turned to SBS for its free coverage of Australia vs France.

Optus' World Cup streaming problems will send a chill down Spark's spine
Aussie telco Optus won rights to the FIFA World Cup but may well now be wishing it hadn't.

The France-Australia clash on Saturday night was subject to a streaming meltdown. "Droptus!" chorused an angry social media mob as the picture cut out.

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull took to Twitter to let Australians know he had given Optus chief executive Allen Lew an earful, then addressed the issue in Parliament.

As it scrambled to solve technical glitches, Optus made all World Cup games available free-to-air via SBS.

The multicultural channel suddenly had 2.1 million bonus viewers and a 45% audience share (it's usually in single digits).

But for Optus the past few days have been a PR and financial disaster.

Tricky cove, Johnny Streaming
One suspects Spark has been watching nervously from this side of the Tasman as it prepares to stream the next Rugby World Cup.

And ditto its shareholders; more so because Spark won't reveal any costs associated with the cup until its first financial results after the September 20, 2019 tournament.

Officially, Spark says it's keeping a watching brief and will learn any lessons it can.

The telco has fifteen months to get its streaming act together.

It will be a daunting task. Sure, most Kiwi households are now streaming some degree of video every day. But their eyeballs are spread across thousands of different pieces of content.

A million or a million and a half all trying to stream the same piece of content at once will be challenging, no matter how many content delivery networks and other tech horsepower is involved. Just ask Optus, or HBO and its various streaming partners who were hit by problems in July last year when the last series of Game of Thrones kicked off. And the streaming issues suffered by Sky Go during live sports events have been legion.

Spark also has a free-to-air broadcast partner but it would be sub-optimal, to say the least, if it has to make all coverage free through TVNZ for a stretch. Managing director Simon Moutter says Spark will recoup some of its outlay on the World Cup from ads but most will come from selling subscriptions. Mr Moutter reckons it will probably cost about $100 for a pass that will let you watch every game. The tech has to work. And more so if the telco has ambitions to go after All Blacks tests or Super Rugby next.

Buying time
Last month, Spark upgraded and re-platformed its Lightbox service.

Its new partner, Brightcove, supports live-streaming. However, Spark says it has yet to decide which platform it will use for the World Cup.

It would not have helped nerves that the upgraded Lightbox played up.

Keeping the acid on, one of Spark's commercial rivals pointed out to NBR that the telco's World Cup package also includes the Sevens World Cup, which begins next month.

Don't look for any last-minute streaming scramble from Spark, however. The telco has handed over the Sevens to TVNZ lock-stock-and-barrel to buy time. All games will screen on TVNZ's Duke channel, and be streamed via TVNZ OnDemand.

Meantime, Chorus has begun a limited trial of 4K (ultra high definition) live video over UFB fibre. That could provide one avenue for Spark in terms of distribution. Industry watchers will also note Spark and Sky TV have also got surprisingly cosy over Fanpass lately, with Sky's streaming app now available to the telco's customers at a steep discount. Could closer cooperation lie ahead?

RELATED VIDEO: Chorus network strategy manager Kurt Rodgers talks to Chris Keall about his company's live 4K TV-over-UFB fibre trial (June 7).

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POSTSCRIPT: Free World Cup highlights

If you're a football fan, and don't have access to local FIFA World Cup rights holder Sky TV, you can find highlights of each game on FIFA's YouTube channel

Surprisingly in this day and age of fights over news highlights and geo-blocking, all the clips are free and accessible to Kiwis.

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