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
EARLIER / JUNE 20: 
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).

All content copyright NBR. Do not reproduce in any form without permission, even if you have a paid subscription.


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.


20 · Got a question about this story? Leave it in Comments & Questions below.


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20 Comments & Questions

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Mr Moutter has staked his job on RWC coverage not being this frAGILE

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With how many "buts" and "only ifs" did he stake his job on it?
Moutter has been known to talk out the side of his mouth

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A RWC deal with Sky would seem logical. I would suspect that a large number of Spark customers (who do not already subscribe to Sky) will take up the discounted $30/month Fanpass offer. This deal gives Spark customers a unique deal that people have been wanting for a long time - cheap access to Sport-only content.
Vodafone customers (Sky's closest business partner) don't even have this option.

It would seem strange to me for Spark to then ask its customers to pay another $100 to watch the RWC tournament on a different platform.

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In HK I subscribed for the rugby channel with a 2 year contract only to discover to my horror that they lost the rights to Northern Hemisphere based matches. I felt ripped off and won't be subscribing again

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What capacity /load can our broadband cope with?

What is the optus network capacity?

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New Zealand's broadband infrastructure is now better than Australia's by almost any measure. However, it's not just a matter of raw capacity. It's how much a retailer purchases for content delivery, and their ability to scale it during peak demand.

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Don't be doing it through the internet, it's just not going to cope at current speeds. Maybe in the future, but not now.

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Chorus is trialling dedicated bandwidth for live video over fibre, separate from a household's regular ISP account (see the video in the story above for more). That could be an option for Spark. 

I should also note that while the challenges of live streaming are real, and should not be shied away from, I personally hope Spark ultimately succeeds with its World Cup 2019 efforts. That would be a great outcome for consumer choice and competition if it does emerge as a serious rival to Sky.

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Actually Chris, if Spark continue to win the rights to RWC type tournaments, and Sky continue to hold on to the other main ones, that could be a poor/costly outcome for consumers.

Rather than just pay one monthly subscription (as they do now with Sky) for all sporting content they would need to pay twice to receive a fragmented viewing experience across multiple platforms.

Let's hope you scrutinise Spark as harshly as you have scrutinised Sky over the last few months, given you have stated that you are personally rooting for Spark.

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Increased competition can only be a good thing for consumers. The big problem at the moment though is that rights are negotiated in order to give a geographic monopoly; which is where Sky's large chequebook has allowed them to rort us for too long. Somebody else coming in will decrease prices for the consumer over all.

I would, however, prefer to see legislation that makes it quite clear that parallel importing of broadcasts is entirely legal and something that can't be geographically restricted.

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More likely that increased competition will be good for the content provider

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I'm rooting for competition, so I want to see more than one player succeed.

If Spark does well with the World Cup, it will make a play for other rugby contracts. 

I think the competition will lead to more and better coverage options.

But, yes, you do have a point that it can lead the poor sports fan paying for more than one service to get full coverage of a particular code (a keen soccer fan who subscribes to beIN Sports' streaming service, for example, still has to access Sky for FA Cup and FIFA World Cup games, to take a current example.

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It is about capacity and consistency for most people rather than speed. You only need a constant for 3Mbps for HD video!

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Yeah whatever the correct gobbledygook terminology is. All I know is that I'm going to be wanting to sit down and watch something without a ton of interruption, and at the moment it looks like that's not going to happen. I won't be interested in excuses, get it fixed before kick off or be prepared for a massive fallout. We're talking rugby here.

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Getting internet-streamed content to a traditional TV is actually pretty straightforward in most cases, though sometimes -- especially when there's wi-fi involved -- it can be a hair-puller.

I think there will be hundreds of thousands who think just like you, Ivan. They won't want to jump through any hoops, and will have zero patience for any Spark Q&As etc. This will be a major logistical and PR problem for Spark. 

If Spark doesn't make enough progress in time, one fallback would be to offer games free via TVNZ, as Optus has done via Spark.

But another would be to have them pay-per-view on Sky TV, with Spark and Sky revenue sharing.

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Not a prob if you adopt the car-pooling paradigm: An address gets appointed to go and view any popular live sports coverage, and people within a set radius (depending on neighbourhood density) congregate at that place.

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all good if you don't mind the burping etc. Some will consume large amount of booze etc and it will be a nightmare. Also I want to watch in my own home with my family not a bunch of people I have nothing in common with

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Working with Spark's recent promise and delivery record we can expect some fireworks. Sorry, but at this stage I am not a believer.
And what's all this with Sky now dancing with Spark when only last year they were trying to dance with Vodafone? How many nightclubs are these (Sky) people doing?
If I was TVNZ I'd be quietly talking with clients for ""anything that just might become available'' because you never quite know do you? looking forward.
This will be a great story.

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Spark being "Agilified" senseless leading to low morale and big job losses and the Chorus network being run by a bean counter - what could possibly go wrong?

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with a VPN (around NZ$10 per month) and plenty of streaming services around the world none of this will matter

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