More than sporting records were broken during the Rugby World Cup 2019. Spark Sport’s groundbreaking streaming coverage of the event meant more data than ever before passed through New Zealand’s networks.

Chorus notes its network traffic peaked at 2.60Tbps during the quarter finals weekend — the last tournament round with exclusive streaming coverage.

Jeff Latch, head of Spark Sport, says: “The tournament was a pivotal moment for the telecommunications industry. It delivered.

“Everyone’s network performed really well. The platform has been rock-solid right through. The event has been good. The quality of the actual production around the live coverage has been terrific.

“If you take the big picture lens, I think the industry has come through this very well indeed. All of the major things that need to happen to enable a big event like this were put in place.

“That’s fantastic, because if you look ahead to other sports content coming up, New Zealanders can be confident that streaming is going to deliver beautiful high-quality pictures in their homes or to their mobile devices.”

It didn’t all go perfectly, however. A problem with pixellated coverage affected some viewers during the first All Blacks group match against South Africa. That issue made news headlines.

Latch is keen to put the issue into perspective without shying away from the problem. He says: “Ultimately, we are responsible. We need to carry the can. The fact that it was an upstream issue is neither here nor there. It was frustrating for everyone here and for [our partner] iStream Planet in the US that we would have this kind of issue play out.”

So what happened? Latch describes the issue in lay terms: “If you imagine there’s a six-lane highway for digital content coming into New Zealand, a very large percentage of that was routed into one lane.” 

This happened in the first half of the game. Latch says Spark Sport was quick to activate its emergency plan, which saw the game shown live free-to-air on TVNZ’s Duke channel, while the stream continued for those not experiencing issues.

He says: “We resolved the issue in the second half. Most people had a good experience in the second half. Sadly, a number of people were impacted in the first half.”

It’s not clear how many people were affected. Latch says: “Concurrent streams went from a high of 132,000 in the first half. By the end of the match, we were running at 126,000.” 

He says undoubtedly more than this number experienced problems, even so it was still a small percentage relative to the total number of viewers.

The emergency plan kicked in. Latch says: “We did what we said we would do and that is err on the side of caution. We activated with TVNZ. Less than 60 seconds after we activated the plan, live coverage went out on TVNZ Duke.

“TVNZ did a terrific job managing that process.”

Despite believing the problem was identified and fixed, Spark Sport played safe and the next day three games were broadcast live on TVNZ Duke.

He says: “The reason we did that, even though we were confident, was this was the first opportunity to see if this was the case. We didn’t want to take the risk. As it turned out, we had resolved the issue.”

The early stumble underlined the biggest hurdle Spark Sport faced with its coverage: customer education.

Latch says: “One of the things that exacerbated the issue in the All Blacks—South Africa game was that we had tens of thousands of people come in during the last 48 hours and subscribe to the platform.

“A lot of people hadn’t got themselves organised in their home because they came in so late.

“Even though we spend months educating people on the importance of coming in early and getting ready, making sure you have good connectivity to the house, setting up in the house with a trial service and making sure it is working for you so that if you do need assistance there is time to help.

“The first match they turned on to watch was All Blacks—South Africa, and, unsurprisingly, a decent chunk of this group needed guidance on how to get set up and how to optimise performance. That all played out at the same time as the issue.”

He says Spark Sport will never know for sure how many people suffered from the upstream issue and how many had degraded performance because they weren’t well set up. Either way, he says it is understandable that they were unhappy and complained.

Spark Sport had to educate its customers fast. Latch says a lot of people were running multiple devices on their home Wi-Fi, not understanding that having their son gaming in the next room on Playstation, and other kids on their laptops, was going to have a negative impact on their picture. Once that was explained, and they turned off the other devices, they had a great picture.

He says: “We always knew this would be the case. A million New Zealand households are reasonably proficient with streaming across Netflix, Lightbox, Neon, TVNZ on Demand, Three Now and international streaming sites.

“That leaves you with 800,000 or so homes that are not. If you look at the rugby audience, the late majority and laggards who came through just before the match, they were the ones who needed help.

“The good news is that we sorted most of those people out.” 

THE FEW PERSISTENT ISSUES SOLVED

Some needed more help than others. It turned out that between 350 to 400 people, out of over 186,000 subscribers, had persistent issues with multiple games. Spark Sport bit the bullet and sent people out to their houses at the company’s cost to sort them out.

Otherwise the technology performed well. Latch says: “What was pleasing from our perspective is the authentication and payment system was seamless. That worked incredibly well with tens of thousands coming on to the platform in the last 24 hours or so.” 

Latch is also pleased with the communication to customers during the tournament. He says the technology platform didn’t miss a beat and the event management by iStream Planet went well. He also had praise for TVNZ’s production job. He says: “We wanted to deliver world-class coverage and we did.” 

The local data communications networks performed well too. It helps that everyone brought forward their planned upgrades. He says: “Not just our Spark network, all of the telco networks, large and small, held up really well. We haven’t had any network-related issues as such. Given the spotlight this tournament has been under, I’m sure there would have been stories if they did.”