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Can Spark fix Lightbox’s tech in time?

Newsroom technology columnist Richard MacManus points out Spark has a lot of work to do before next year's Rugby World Cup to ensure its technology can handle sports live streaming.

COMMENT: Last week World Rugby sold local broadcast rights to the 2019 Rugby World Cup to Spark, which will partner with TVNZ to cover the tournament. Spark plans to live stream much of the event, via a new streaming app it has promised to build. It will be a huge test for the company, especially given New Zealand’s decidedly mixed record with streaming.

Spark’s first priority will be making sure the RWC streaming app is better than anything produced in this country so far – including its own Lightbox app. In the App Store, Lightbox has as many one-star ratings as five-star; indicating a mixed performance at best.

Spark is not alone in struggling to adapt to streaming. Sky TV’s live streaming apps, such as Sky GO and Fan Pass, have been notoriously bad in terms of streaming quality. Buffering, latency issues, and ill-timed crashes have been common complaints of Sky TV customers trying to use these apps.

The good news for Spark is that 2018 has been a turning point overseas for live streaming. The technology to stream live sports is much better than it was even a year ago.

When NBC live streamed first the Super Bowl and then the Winter Olympics to US audiences in February, feedback was mostly positive. In its review of the Winter Olympics streaming coverage, Vox noted that NBC “finally seemed as if it could handle the crush of viewership that sometimes drove it to technical issues in the past.”

NBC reported that over two million viewers tuned into the Super Bowl via its streaming apps and websites. The live stream peaked at 3.1 million concurrent streams. Its PyeongChang coverage spanned to 17 billion streaming minutes in total, more than triple the previous Winter Olympics at Sochi.

Despite intense interest in the RWC here in New Zealand, Spark’s streaming audience probably won’t reach Super Bowl levels. That’s partly because Spark won’t be streaming some of the biggest matches – including the final, which World Rugby has mandated must be shown on free-to-air television. Spark has partnered with TVNZ to broadcast those games, and also to borrow its commentators.

If Spark is looking for live streaming tips, it can reach out to fellow telecommunications company Verizon, which also had live streaming rights to the Super Bowl. Verizon gave its customers free access via Yahoo Sports, which Verizon now owns. It’s a pity Spark cut off its partnership with Yahoo last year, because New Zealand customers will have to pay. Spark will charge around $100 for the RWC coverage.

However one thing that Spark will likely emulate from Verizon is using the RWC to further test its next-generation 5G network. At the Super Bowl, Verizon conducted multiple live tests of its 5G wireless technology – including testing out Virtual Reality experiences over the network. Spark publicly tested 5G for the first time last month, so it will surely use the Rugby World Cup as another opportunity to show off the massive speeds and low latency of 5G.

But first things first: Spark needs to develop a streaming app that is markedly better than previous kiwi attempts at streaming apps. That’s easier said than done, because almost all streaming apps have some technical issues. In my own experience as a streaming consumer, the only product that has never had major buffering or latency issues – or crashed partway through a program – has been Netflix.

Partnering with ISPs

The reason Netflix works so well is in large part due to its relationship with local ISPs (Internet Service Providers). Ed Silvester, Head of R&D at sports media streaming company Perform Group, explained that Netflix runs so smoothly because of its Open Connect program. According to Silvester, Netflix “designed and built their own hardware and software solution and struck relationships with internet service providers to host the petabytes of movies inside the ISPs.”

In other words, if you stream a popular TV show or movie on Netflix, chances are it’s being served locally from your ISP. But with live sports streaming, you can’t do that. It also doesn’t help matters if the sports event is broadcast from overseas. The 2019 Rugby World Cup is being hosted in Japan, so the live feed will be traveling thousands of kilometres across the Pacific Ocean in real time.

The flip side is that Japan’s telecommunications sector is one of the most advanced in the world, so getting a high quality and fast feed won’t be an issue.

Work required on Lightbox

Also in Spark’s favour: it has some experience with streaming apps, thanks to its Lightbox initiative. Although I’ve used Lightbox and frankly didn’t find it as good as Netflix (it was on a par with Sky’s Neon, which isn’t saying much). So Spark will need to up its game considerably to cope with live streaming an overseas event.

Spark will also need to reach out to the competition, Vodafone and 2degrees, to broaden its coverage to parts of New Zealand it currently cannot reach.

In the end, the success or otherwise of Spark’s live streaming of the RWC will come down to two main factors.

Firstly, whether New Zealand consumers have the right broadband setup. That’s on us, as consumers, to sort out before September 2019. If ultrafast fibre is available in your area, you’d best hook up to it. But even if ultra fast fibre won’t become available to you within the next 18 months, checking you have the right modem and ensuring you have a high data cap will go a long way to a providing a decent streaming experience.

The second factor will be how good Spark’s streaming app is and whether it works on the most common Internet devices – including, most importantly, smart TVs. This is my biggest worry, since I’ve experienced technical issues with Lightbox on my Samsung Smart TV. Others have expressed similar concerns in the App Store.

Only one thing is for sure: Spark is staking its reputation on a glitch-free streaming experience in 2019. If it can pull it off, it’ll be a huge marketing boost for its broadband services and upcoming 5G network.

But if the app crashes just as Beauden Barrett crashes over for a game-winning try, the fallout will be so bad that Spark may have to re-brand itself again.

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