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Infratil is among the few companies able to unlock Vodafone New Zealand’s value. There is untapped potential. It may not be immediately obvious to other potential buyers.

That potential didn’t excite enough interest when the company was taken on the road after the Sky TV merger failed. Presumably, buyers looked in the wrong direction.

Most people see Infratil as an infrastructure company. It is that.

Infratil hold TrustPower key

Infratil also owns a little over half of electricity retailer TrustPower. This is the key to unlocking Vodafone’s value.

TrustPower isn’t any electricity retailer. It is also New Zealand’s fourth largest internet service provider.

Number four doesn’t mean big. Last year’s Commerce Commission monitoring report said TrustPower has a five percent market share of broadband connections.

That’s small. Even when added to Vodafone’s 26 percent, the two don’t get close to Spark. That company still has more than 40 percent of all connections.

Small but potent

If Vodafone plus TrustPower doesn’t alter the broadband balance of power, what is disruptive here?

The answer is Trustpower has found how to make more profit from connections. It sells bundles combining broadband and power in a single bill.

Buying Vodafone opens the door to a million Vodafone customers. Many of these will also buy electricity.

It turns out broadband and electricity are a potent mix. They may go together better than, say, broadband and pay TV.

Would you like fries with that?

TrustPower isn’t the only company to find value in the “would you like fries with that?” broadband and power proposition. Vocus acquired a small electricity retail business. It has been selling power to its customers.

Electricity and broadband have worked for TrustPower.

Both services need investment in billing systems. Billing is a large cost for both electricity and broadband retailers. Putting two services on a single bill trims costs. It increases margins by more than you might imagine. A few dollars per month times thousands of customers soon adds up.

Remember Vodafone has struggled in the past with billing.

There are other efficiencies. You don’t, for example, need to run separate call centres for power and broadband customers.

Golden handcuffs

These cost savings are nothing compared with the value Trustpower gets from having customers buy both services at once.

Customers who buy more complex bundles of services are less likely to go elsewhere. TrustPower cuts churn every time a power customer signs up for broadband. This also works the other way around.

A million Vodafone customers have already proved they are creditworthy. There is probably enough data to know which customers are difficult to deal with. It may even be easy to identify homeowners or lead tenants, the people most likely to buy electricity.

Asymmetric information

There’s another aspect to TrustPower’s offer.

You’ll notice TrustPower’s advertising splashes the headline price of broadband. Usually this is so much a month less than other high profile broadband retailers. In some cases, the first months are discounted. A normal rate kicks in a few months into a 24-month contract.

TrustPower sweetens deals by offering Samsung flat screen TVs or other inducements.

It’s easy for consumers to comparison shop for broadband. There aren’t many speed and data options.

Selling photons and electrons

It’s harder to comparison shop for power Both are low margin products. Both are competitive markets. It is often easier to make more profit selling electrons than photons.

Vodafone and TrustPower under a single umbrella means more market power. That’s not helpful when it comes to inputs, companies buy broadband at regulated prices from wholesalers like Chorus and Enable. It is helpful when muscling to the front of a queue with partners.

We haven’t even mentioned TrustPower’s earlier bid to establish a mobile virtual network operator business. If nothing else, the company’s executives would have looked closer at the economics of selling mobile. This is Vodafone’s core business.

Infratil invests in infrastructure

Vodafone was due to float next year. The parent company, the UK-based Vodafone Group, wants to get as much of its New Zealand investment out of the country. It plans to invest in places like India where there is more long-term potential.

One challenge Vodafone faces and would otherwise continue to face is finding funds to invest in 5G. Doing the job properly would cost the thick end of a billion dollars over the next decade. Infratil can cover the spend.

Sure, Vodafone has other attractions. It won’t all be about cross-pollination with TrustPower. Yet the million-plus creditworthy mobile customers who might be persuaded to switch electricity retailer, are an important part of the company’s value.

My Box screen display

Sky TV is celebrating a court win against My Box, the streaming service that advertises its ability to play Sky’s content for free.

The Auckland High Court ruled that My Box cannot describe its service as legal. It confirms that using its hardware and software to show Sky-owned material is a breach of copyright.

The court will hold a hearing to decide costs early next year.

Sophie Moloney, Sky’s general counsel says: “This decision, along with the recent ruling against Fibre TV boxes in Christchurch, sends a very clear message to New Zealanders that these services are not all they are cracked up to be.”

Sky’s roundabout victory

What’s curious about this case is that Sky didn’t manage to win a straight legal victory over video piracy. It took action against My Box and the company owner Krish Reddy under the Fair Trading Act.

In effect, Sky’s successful legal argument was that My Box was making claims about its service that were misleading.

This echoes the way US authorities finally managed to nail gangster Al Capone because of his tax evasion, not his more serious crimes.

My Box pirate

What’s pleasing about this case is that Reddy is an out-and-out pirate. This isn’t like a bunch of kids being busted for watching a naughty episode of a show that isn’t even available through legitimate entertainment channels. It’s not like someone bittorrenting a missing episode or using a VPN to watch BBC coverage.

Sky has a far better moral argument here.

Reddy may not be a gangster, but his My Box business is copyright piracy on an industrial scale. He claims to have sold 17,000 boxes.

While you can’t argue that every one of those 17,000 customers would have otherwise subscribed to Sky, it’s clear that Reddy sucked a lot of money earmarked for video entertainment out of an industry that struggles to pay its way.

Last year I received one of the My Box spam emails. Heaven knows how the company got hold of my details. It did come via a long defunct but still forwarded email address.

Wake up call

The fact that it was spam is a wake up call in itself. But the email wasted no time telling me that I could get content for free without paying a Sky subscription. It looked crooked.

Piracy is in decline. There’s less need to steal content when it isn’t expensive to buy from the likes of Netflix or Lightbox.

Even sport, which comes with more of a premium price tag, is affordable for most New Zealanders. At least in relative terms. A year-long subscription to Bein Sport NZ or Sky Fanpass is roughly a couple of days pay for someone on a minimum wage.

Sky is My Box’s most obvious victim. In a way so are the people who paid the company money and believed they were getting legitimate access to streaming video services.

In theory, any customer would have a good case to demand their money back. I suspect they, like Sky, will find there are few if any assets left in the business.

It’s no coincidence Sky TV reported a $240 million loss days after Spark won the Premier League Football rights. A thread connects the two news stories.

Spark is New Zealand’s rising media power. Sky is still number one, but fading.

You can’t blame Sky’s problems on Spark’s football win. The traditional pay-TV company hasn’t owned Premier League rights for five years now. Yet the move underscores the shift from old school television technology to streaming media.

Football key to sport portfolio

The English Premier League joins Spark’s growing TV portfolio.

The telco, yes Spark is still mainly a telco, also has the local rights to Manchester United TV. On the team’s current form that may not be much to write home about. Even so it’s a sound investment. United is the best know and most followed English club outside of the UK.

Spark says it plans to wrap the two football deals into a new standalone sports media business. Spark already has the rights to next year’s Rugby World Cup.

The company has hinted there is still more to come. Sky TV doesn’t have the clout, or the money, it once had. So Spark has an opportunity to prise other popular sports away from the incumbent. If nothing else, New Zealand Netball and Cricket must be possible candidates. And perhaps various motor sports.

Sky FanPass

This is not great news for Sky. But there are chinks of light among the dark. The pay TV broadcaster cut a deal allowing Spark to resell its FanPass service.

Fanpass is now another small, but nicely done plank in Spark’s sports media portfolio. It also means Sky gets to tap a market that it has previously struggled to reach.

Let’s not forget LightBox. Spark’s streaming TV operation may be a pale imitation of Netflix, but it’s a useful value-add for Spark’s broadband business.

Another useful add-on for Spark is that it offers cut-price Netflix to customers signing for long broadband contracts.

Sticky TV

All-in-all Spark already has enough media properties to keep viewers glued to its broadband services. And that’s a critical part of the company’s TV-over-internet strategy: customers who buy a bundle of services are less likely to decamp to a rival broadband service.

Premier League football isn’t New Zealand’s most popular sporting code by a long shot. However, it has particular value for Spark. First, it tends to be watched by relatively well-heeled fans who are willing to pay a couple of hundred dollars or so for a year’s worth of games.

Second, Premier League fans are well used to watching games using streaming. It was the first major sporting property to be picked up by a digital organisation. That was Coliseum Sports Media which had the rights from 2013 to 2016. Spark works in a partnership with Coliseum before BeIn Sport won the rights.

Overseas moves

In a media statement Spark managing director Simon Moutter say his company developed its plan after looking at overseas sports content media moves.

He says: “We’ve carefully considered the different models and will be looking to replicate the good things other businesses have done and learn from the challenges they’ve had — all the while thinking carefully about how sports media fits in a New Zealand context”.

Spark says it will launch its own sport ‘platform’ early in 2019 and will annouce pricing and package deals closer to the launch.

Latch

Spark Sport head Spark hired Jeff Latch to head the Spark Sport operation. He will oversee buying more content rights and will take charge of the ‘platform’. Latch was previously director of content at TVNZ. In that role he was in charge of buying content, including sport. Spark is partnering with TVNZ for the Rugby World Cup project.

Latch says Spark will work with a specialist sports-streaming company. He says the platform used will be different from the one used by Spark’s Lightbox service.

He also said Spark intends its sports media operation to work as a standalone business and not be used merely as a way to woo broadband or mobile customers. To a degree this is what Spark has done with Lightbox.

Netflix close to two million NZ viewers

Had Sky merged with Vodafone it may have fought off the challenge from Spark, although that’s far from certain. Yet nothing could protect Sky from its other threat: Netflix.

Roy Morgan research says Netflix now has nearly two million viewers in New Zealand. The service saw subscription numbers grow 35 percent in the last year to reach 1.9 million viewers. The research company goes on to report:

“Now over three million New Zealanders have access to some form of Pay or Subscription TV, up 13.9 percent on a year ago. The growth in Pay and Subscription TV is being driven by the likes of Netflix along with a suite of rival streaming services including Lightbox, Sky TV’s Neon and Amazon Prime Video.”

Viewer numbers are growing slower for Sky TV’s Neon service. It was up 1.7 percent in the year to reach a total of 1.6 million viewers. Lightbox is the second most popular video on demand servide with 830,000 users. That’s up 43 percent on last year, growing faster than Netflix. Vodafone TV has 295,000.

Sky TV launched legal action in a bid to force ISPs to block access to streaming and video download websites.

As you’d expect, the move didn’t go down well with the industry. At least two ISPs say they will fight Sky in court.

Sky sent notice that it will seek court orders for Spark, Vodafone, 2degrees and Vocus — which trades as Orcon, Slingshot and Flip – to block a list of unspecified sites. The date blocking should start is not specified in the letters.

Spark and Vocus seem ready to resist.

The four ISPs account for more than 90 percent of all online accounts in New Zealand. If Sky gets them to block, picking off the smaller players will be trivial.

Pirate Bay

Sky TV’s letter specifically names the Pirate Bay as a site it wants to be blocked.

The pay TV company says it is targeting illegal pirate sites as they are a threat to local entertainment industries and sporting codes.

The timing is curious. Most of the threat from piracy has subsided. The battle is won.

Once were pirates

It would have made sense for Sky to have moved against these websites in the past. But today piracy is only a shadow of its former self.

Vocus consumer general manager Taryn Hamilton says his company’s stats show visits to The Pirate Bay – a popular file-sharing site – is now at 23 percent of its 2013 peak.

Most of the damage to Sky TV’s business was done a long time ago. Today pirates are no threat. Legitimate online streaming services like Netflix, Hulu and Amazon are what is really killing Sky’s business. They have already killed the pirates.

They offer a similar mix of entertainment programming at a fraction of Sky’s price. Netflix is $15 a month, Sky TV is around $80.

Sport is different

Things are different with sports programming. Sky has the rights to the most popular sporting codes in New Zealand, there are no legitimate alternatives.

While determined customers with VPNs can often shop around overseas for a better deal, it’s often too much trouble for most people. And overseas coverage can be inferior,

Hamilton says the idea of Sky blacklisting sites is dinosaur behaviour and something you might expect to see in North Korea.

It is certainly dinosaur behaviour. The fact that Sky names the faded and diminished Pirate Bay as a public enemy is a sign of how out-of-touch it is with the current scene.

Yet blocking websites isn’t restricted to totalitarian North Korea. A number of countries have laws blocking pirate websites. Often after the kind of litigation Sky plans. Web-blocking regimes don’t always work. There are plenty of workarounds for determined pirates.

Fighting Sky

Hamilton says Vocus will fight Sky in court. His company is not alone. Spark says it also aims to fight the injunction. Last time there was a copyright battle, Spark sided with Sky TV.  InternetNZ says it is seeking legal advice. Vodafone, which has a close relationship with Sky, says it will comply with any court order. At the time of writing, 2degrees has yet to commit.

Should the four ISPs co-ordinate their defence, maybe with help from InternetNZ and other interested parties, life could be difficult for Sky, which is already in long-term decline as it continues to fail to adjust to new technology.

Lawyers are obvious winners here. Litigation is likely to be expensive. One problem is there is no precedent in New Zealand for this kind of complaint, the Copyright Act stems from a time before video streaming was practical. Until now most service providers have walked away from pitched battles.

Kodi victory

Around the time Sky sent letters to the ISPs, the company won an interim injunction against Fibre TV which sells the Kodi set-top box. Fibre TV sells the set-top box along with software designed to make piracy easy. The decision was made in the Christchurch District Court and Sky was awarded costs.

It is possible that the Kodi victory spurred Sky TV’s renewed interest in attacking the ISPs. Possible, but unlikely. Fibre TV was small and unable to put up much of a fight. The case against Fibre TV was a slam dunk and there’s not much public sympathy for the company.

On the other hand, the attack on ISPs looks set to be a public relations disaster for Sky. The move is unpopular with consumers.

Criticism of Sky TV

As you’d expect Sky TV has come in for a lot of criticism over its move – not just from the ISPs who are in the firing line.

It is fair to say Sky is struggling to defend an outmoded business model. Yet it is equally understandable that the company wants to protect the value of the rights it has purchased in good faith from movie or TV studios and sporting codes.

It is possible that Sky is acting against ISPs on behalf of rights holders. In the past, the big US-based media companies have attempted similar actions. They or the sporting codes could be bankrolling Sky’s litigation or even pressuring Sky to act as their proxy.

All these protagonists seem out of touch with what’s happening on the ground. Netflix has shown how to make software piracy redundant. It charges what consumers consider a fair price for a decent selection of programming. That becomes a compelling alternative to navigating the dark side of the internet.

Sky needs to find a way to cut its prices to Netflix-like levels. From outside, that looks hard because it appears bundling channels lets Sky subsidise some content by overcharging for other content. If so, it is an unsustainable business model. Moreover, the problem has nothing to do with Orcon customers being able to see the Pirate Bay.

Writing at Newsroom.co.nz, Mark Jennings covers a weak financial result from Sky TV. He quotes boss John Fellet:

“Piracy has become our biggest competitor.

“The big problem is the increasing ease by which pirated content is accessible.

“Devices preloaded with piracy software enable users to access pirated content stored on servers overseas, from the comfort of their living room.”

There’s little question piracy happens. Every so often an email arrives from a company that offers exactly the kind of device Fellet blames for a poor financial result. You can buy a VPN and watch shows or sports that cost money on Sky on other nations’ free to air TV channels. It’s not hard.

But it’s not the whole story.

Keen consumers of paid services

Analyst firm IDC says New Zealanders are now among the world’s keenest buyers of paid online services. Some 22 percent of consumers here say services like Netflix and Lightbox are their main way of viewing entertainment.

That’s on a par with the US and a long way ahead of the worldwide figure of 14 percent.

We’re still behind North America when it comes to buying a streaming service. On the other side of the Pacific 41 percent pay for streaming TV, here just over a quarter do.

New Zealand wasted little time moving from near the bottom of the online service league to the top of the table. It is three years since Spark launched Lightbox, the first widely available local service. There were also services like the Premier League Pass which allowed fans to watch English football on digital devices.

Netflix

While many New Zealanders paid for an international version of Netflix, that service didn’t arrive in a local form until early 2015. Network companies like Chorus and ISPs like Orcon show graphs of how data consumption rates leaped after Netflix opened in New Zealand. It helps that these services arrived as the nationwide UFB fibre build hit its stride.

These numbers give the lie to the idea that New Zealanders are software pirates or spend a lot of time downloading illegal content.

Some of the discussion of this survey on social media centred on the poor entertainment choices had before streaming video was a practical option.

Fellet’s Sky TV enjoyed an effective monopoly on paid video entertainment for a generation. By overseas standards it is, or was, expensive. Sky was never fast bringing shows to New Zealand, that wasn’t an issue back when it started, but online spoilers and the buzz around big, popular shows meant that annoyed consumers.

Sky missed a trick with the internet. It still doesn’t make all content easy to buy online. Instead it uses out-of-date set top boxes. Its technology is more than a decade behind the times.

Download pirates

Customers found they could download shows ahead of Sky’s schedule. They can watch them when they like. They also realised they could get their material without paying. Many still do. But as the IDC evidence shows, New Zealanders are more willing to pay for TV than most people in the world.

While Sky could legitimately claim it was losing to pirates, there’s another side to the debate. Studios sold exclusive rights to Sky for vast fortunes, but did little to police how their products were distributed.

For a while New Zealand consumers could buy shows from international online services for a fraction the price charged by Sky. The pay TV company would have a legitimate claim against the studios, but chasing wealthy lawyered-up corporations is harder than busting kids who know how Bittorrent works.

Not just movies and sport

IDC says it isn’t just movies, sport and TV shows. New Zealanders are among the keenest users of all premium digital services. This includes online music streaming, cloud services, and console gaming. We are also among the highest users of Facebook with 81 percent of people who answered the survey using the service in the month before they were asked. The worldwide figure is 74 percent.

People here own an average of 6.5 digital devices and spend 56 hours, roughly half, of waking hours connected to online.
In general, we’re a practical breed. We tend to use digital services if there’s an obvious benefit. If the benefit is less clear, we’re more tentative. So just 18 percent of New Zealanders have used virtual reality in the past year. This compares with 38 percent worldwide.

To get these numbers IDC questions 30,000 adult consumers in 19 countries. 1400 of them were in New Zealand.