Speaking at the Tuanz Rural Connectivity Symposium, Communications Minister Clare Curran said next year’s Rugby World Cup will test the nation’s networks.

Earlier this year Spark and TVNZ won the rights to broadcast the competition outbidding Sky TV. While some games will be shown on free-to-air television networks, Spark’s plan is for many fans to watch streaming coverage delivered over internet connections to their smart TVs, tablets, laptops and phones. 

Curran says: “I imagine most people in this room have been watching what’s happening in Australia in the last week or so with Optus streaming the football World cup. It could be described as a meltdown that’s now seen Optus Australia give all group games to SBS – the Australian free-to-air channel. Lagging and freezing video, frequent drop outs and picture quality problems outraged sports fans and prompted Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull to speak to the Optus CEO.”

This is something of a wake-up call. Curran says she acknowledges the importance of rugby in New Zealand. It’s also personal — the minister famously once wore a Highlanders’ shirt in a parliamentary debate. 

The issue was of direct relevance to the audience at the Rural Connectivity Symposium. Rugby support is strongest in the regions and rural areas. Many of these places are beyond the reach of the fibre network. 

By the time of the Rugby World Cup, the first phase of the UFB programme will be complete and the second phase will be well underway. So, the roughly three-quarters of the population covered should have no problem watching games. The rural picture is more mixed with many areas having only fixed wireless broadband connections which may, in places, struggle with congestion. 

Curran says she is watching what Spark is doing to head off similar problems. As part of this she will be working with the minister of sport, Grant Robertson. 

Curran says: "I’m really encouraged that Spark has set up an industry working group — made up of technical and operational experts — who will work closely together to ensure they give New Zealanders a good Rugby World Cup experience. I understand part of the group’s work is to resolve potential problems.

“I also wrote to Spark earlier this month asking them to keep me informed about its plans to ensure rural New Zealand doesn’t miss out on the opportunity to see the entire tournament.”