Along with TVNZ, Spark has won the rights to broadcast next year’s Rugby World Cup. The showcase series of games could be a catalyst for change in how Kiwis view sports as they will be able to stream matches live or on-demand, either over their home broadband or mobile connection. Rob O'Neill talks to Spark following its announcement

What is the deal, how does TVNZ fit in?

Spark bid for and won the rights to the Rugby World Cup 2019 and the other tournaments, so we are the primary provider. If you want to have your pick of matches to watch during the Rugby World Cup 2019, this will be via a streaming service.

Spark also has an agreement with TVNZ that will see TVNZ screen some games free-to-air via its channels. We’ve committed to seven live games free-to-air, including the opening match and the final, with the other five live matches still to be confirmed.


What will Spark be doing to ensure most New Zealanders will be able to watch the Rugby World Cup?

We would not have bid for these tournaments if we weren’t totally confident that our high-quality network (and the excellent networks of our competitors) would be able to deliver them via streaming services to New Zealanders.

We already have hundreds of thousands of customers streaming every night via Netflix, Lightbox, YouTube and so on. Sports streaming needs to be optimised a little differently to entertainment, but we will have a platform up and will stress-test it well in advance of the tournament.

There are currently 1.6 million households in New Zealand with broadband, and of these three-quarters have high (100GB-plus) data caps or unlimited plans. All but a tiny percentage of broadband connections have speeds capable of video-streaming.

The roll-out of fibre is also obviously a huge advantage when it comes to giving New Zealanders a high-quality viewing experience over a live stream. More than 500,000 homes now have fibre and a further 800,000 have Ultra-fast Broadband down the street, so they can be connected if they wish. While details of any customer education campaign leading up to the Rugby World Cup 2019 are still being worked through, you can assume that the advantages of a fibre connection for live streaming sports will feature in it.

Spark also offers a wireless broadband product that has the speed and capacity to carry a live stream for an event like this. We have invested – and will continue to invest – substantially in our mobile network. We have rolled out 4.5G to 30 towns so far. This offers speeds of up to 300Mbps, or three to five times the speeds of standard 4G.

We will also work with our competitors and partners over the next 18 months to put arrangements in place to ensure New Zealanders have a great experience streaming these games, no matter what network they are on.


Will this result in accelerated 5G?

Given the need to get spectrum for 5G, it’s unlikely any 5G services will be available before 2020. However, our 4.5G service is already in 30 towns. 4.5G is capable of delivering up to three to five times more speed and capacity than 4G from a single mobile tower to compatible devices, so you are already seeing a big increase in speed and capacity from this technology.


What percentage of the population will have ‘fast enough’ broadband in time?

While the vast majority of New Zealand will have access to good quality broadband by 2019, we know there are some people – particularly in more remote rural areas – who do not have access to broadband, or whose broadband isn’t of a high enough quality to stream the games.

The government-sponsored Rural Broadband Initiative will mean thousands more New Zealanders will have access to quality broadband by the time the Rugby World Cup comes around. However, we recognise there won’t be broadband available to every rural home or farm by 2019.

This is an issue high on our radar given the importance of this tournament to New Zealanders and we are actively looking at solutions. We’re still working through the details, but this could include deploying temporary infrastructure to community centres – such as rugby club rooms. There is a lot of work to do, but the tournament is still 18 months away and we will work actively on this.


Will Spark use local Content Delivery Network providers, and will the matches be served from Sydney? And, where does Lightbox fit into this?

We are still working through specifics around our platform. We will have more to say about this in the coming months. 


What has Spark learned from its experience with Premier League Football when it worked with Coliseum Sports Media?

We learnt some valuable lessons from Lightbox Sport. The English Premier League proposition was actually a great success. The only reason we didn’t keep offering it was that we were outbid for the rights. After we lost the English Premier League, it made it hard to keep Lightbox Sport going.

Since then, Kiwis have become more and more comfortable with streaming, and every night we have hundreds of thousands of people streaming on our network. We think the Rugby World Cup 2019 is a great opportunity for a showcase event that will be a real catalyst for change in how people view sports.