If Vodafone is about to dive headlong into the pool, Spark dipped a toe in the shallow end.
When it launches Vodafone will have over 100 5G towers in parts of the three biggest cities and in Queenstown. Spark’s network is restricted to what it calls heartland communities.
This is code for small South Island towns. More precisely; Alexandra, Westport, Clyde, Twizel, Tekapo and Hokitika. Collectively the population of these places is around 16,000.
That is about one-third of one percent of New Zealand’s population.
Vodafone won’t have city-wide coverage in its launch cities. Even so, its network could cover getting on for half the population. Even a pessimistic look at the numbers suggests Vodafone will reach 100 times as many potential 5G customers as Spark.
That’s not all. Spark’s network only offers fixed wireless broadband. While fixed wireless might suit some people, most people would see it as a second rate alternative to fibre.
Tekapo and Clyde don’t have fibre, the other places do.
Not preferred 5G spectrum
There’s another angle to this. Spark’s network will use 2600MHz spectrum. The company says this is not its preferred 5G spectrum. Spark doesn’t own the spectrum, it belongs to Dense Air.
The number of commercial Spark 5G heartland community customers for the next few months will be measured in hundreds, not thousands. Vodafone probably expects to sign more customers in a single day.
Spark does also have 5G around parts of Auckland Harbour for the America’s Cup racers. But that’s a private network.
Fate has been cruel to Spark’s 5G ambition. Spark’s plan to show 5G leadership have been hit by three external forces.
Of course the idea carriers are jockeying to win a 5G race is ridiculous. The technology will be around for 10 years. Getting it right is more important than getting it first. Few customers will jump ship just because they have to wait a few months.
While there may be a small first mover advantage, the real winner will be the carrier that can make its network pay over the long haul.
Spark only offers 600GB in Auckland where there are usually better broadband options. The company isn’t so generous out in the sticks where there’s no fibre and wireless is the only game in town.
Rural people who need 600GB wireless data can’t buy it.
Keall writes: “Spark has supersized the data cap on its fixed-wireless broadband plan to a stonking 600 gigabytes – removing one of the historic barriers to this fast internet technology, at least for Auckland customers.”
Make that some Auckland customers.
Spark’s press release talks about eligible customers. It certainly isn’t everyone. The deal is not available at my address nor at any of the first five Auckland addresses I typed into Spark’s website.
Later in the story Keall writes: “The telco couldn’t immediately say which areas of Auckland and how many customers were eligible.”
We don’t even know if it is most of the city, half the city or one-tenth of the city. Going by my entirely unscientific survey, it’s unlikely coverage is at the top end of that list.
Keall goes on to write: “The bandwidth is often good enough for high-def video streaming, though results vary depending on your proximity to the nearest cell site, among other factors.”
The key word here is often.
I’ve heard from readers who can stream high-definition video on Spark’s fixed wireless network. They love it. I’ve also heard from people who can’t stream.
Even Spark was wary of making this kind of promise when it was selling the Spark Sport Rugby World Cup package.
It’s unlikely the Keall household will be customers. He says: “In mine, where two parents stream all their TV, one teen spends a lot of time on PlayStation Online and another sets TikTok records, we usually chew threw between 800GB and 1TB (1000GB).”
When I tried fixed wireless broadband I got a decent 40mbps or so, but at that stage I was the only connection on the local tower. A neighbour gets up to 18mbps, but says the speed drops in the evening.
Apart from the data cap, today’s fixed wireless doesn’t have the bandwidth to cater for this kind of family use. That may change when 5G is available. Yet going on reports from overseas, even 5G will struggle under the Keall-load.
Where available, fixed wireless broadband is the best option for people who are off the fibre map. It makes sense for people who don’t use enough bandwidth or data to justify a fibre line. It is a good idea if you are too far from the curb, or down a difficult to deal with right of way.
Fixed wireless broadband can be cheap.
At $65, Spark’s bottom of the range fixed wireless plan can cost less than even the cheapest fibre plan so long as you stay below 60GB of data a month.
Given that unlimited fibre plans start at around $70 a month, wireless may not be the best value for money.
You don’t need to be psychic to unpick Spark’s timing. Vodafone plans to launch its 5G network before Christmas.
One thing to watch is whether Vodafone will attempt to compete head-on with Spark’s fixed wireless. On paper its 5G fixed wireless will be faster and data will be more abundant. The key question is price.
Vodafone may choose an aggressive price, but that could undermine any messages about the superiority of 5G.
Either way, you can expect to be bombarded with marketing about the relative merits of the different technologies. Spark’s 600GB announcement is the opening salvo.
Sky TV has rebooted its streaming sports service with Sky Sport Now. It’s a new app for phones, computers and tablets offering 12 dedicated sports channels. It will replace Sky’s Fanpass from August 1.
At the same time Sky will start broadcasting a dedicated sports news channel. It will have local news and have local presenters. It will also pull material from around the world. This includes bulletins from Fox Sports News Australia and Sky Sports News UK.
The revamped streaming app will have dedicated channels for rugby, golf, cricket and football. Sky will add two ESPN channels and the new sports news channel to the mix. There will also be pop-up channels for major sporting events.
Better everything, high definition
Sky CEO Martin Stewart Sky Sport Now is the first evidence of the company’s new focus on online streaming.
Well yes. It’s also the first evidence that Sky is fighting back against Spark Sport. For months it has looked as if it had no answers, nothing practical to respond with.
The new app addresses one of the weaknesses of the old four channel Sky Fanpass by giving users access to replays and on demand content. There will also be links to statistics on games and individual athletes.
Pricing for Sky Sport Now includes a weekly $20 pass and a monthly $50 pass. Customers who sign up for a year pay $40 a month.
This is where things get interesting. In round numbers Spark’s revenue is about four times Sky’s. It has relatively little debt, which means it can access cheap money to invest in new products and services.
So, on one level Spark appears to be a formidable opponent. In theory, it could easily outbid Sky for key sporting rights.
Investors might not be happy if Spark gets into a high stakes bidding war with Sky over sport.
Sport is central to Sky’s business. That’s likely to be even more the case in future as seemingly unstoppable streaming services like Netflix chip away at the other parts of its business.
Sky doesn’t have much of a future without access to a solid cross section of popular sport programming.
By signalling its willingness to outbid Spark for key sports codes, Sky is warning its rival’s investors that the costs could escalate. It is in effect asking if they have a stomach for the fight ahead.
This is not mere posturing. Spark has already blinked with other products that were part of its move into digital services.
The company is looking for partners to share the risk with its Lightbox service. You can take it as read Spark would sell Lightbox at the drop of a hat if there was a realistic offer. Spark also recently closed its Morepork security business.
Digital services like Spark Sport may not be as central to the company’s long-term plans as it has previously said.
There’s another clue for Spark watchers following the Sport project’s progress. Spark is now giving away its Rugby World Cup service to customers signing long-term contracts. This can be read as devaluing the brand, or it could be read as using sport to support the main business.
Room for two?
There can room for two New Zealand streaming sports companies if they can both get the mix right.
Spark doesn’t have enough in its current line-up to be a must-buy service. The Rugby World Cup is a one-off. English Premier League is a niche, albeit a fanatical one with an audience willing to pay.
It needs a long-running, popular, season-long competition, not just a few weeks of a cup tournament.
In effect, Spark needs main rights to at least one of Rugby Union, Rugby League and Cricket. Seeing as you asked, Netball is almost as important, but it can’t carry a channel on its own.
Sky, on the other hand, can’t afford to lose any of these major codes.
The long tail
This is not to say the other sporting codes don’t matter. There is a long tail. It helps to think of the big codes as being like anchor tenants in a shopping mall. They bring in the majority of punters who then stay on for the other options.
The acid test for Spark, indeed the acid test for New Zealand streaming sport is the Rugby World Cup. As Jeff Latch mentioned at Spark’s recent press conference, there will be unhappy people no matter how well Spark performs.
If the RWC is a triumph, Spark Sport can ask investors to loosen the purse strings building a bigger brand. If it’s a disaster, the project will be seen as a brief flirtation. Spark’s next move will be damage limitation and probably a face-saving exit from sport streaming.
Most likely the verdict will be somewhere between these two extremes. For some New Zealanders this will be more of a nail-biter than any action on the pitch.
I’m Paul Spain’s guest on the New Zealand Tech Podcast this week. We talk about Spark selling its Morepork security business to ADT and how Netflix is struggling with content deals.
Elsewhere I describe Elon Musk as a Bond villain in the segment discussing Neuralink.
Also in the podcast: NZ drone rule update refresh, mobile-only streaming offering in India, FaceApp, Microsoft highlighting nation-state attacks, Huawei staying in headlines and why Apple may acquire Intel’s Modem business.
Spark is the first New Zealand carrier to support embedded Sim or eSim cards. It’s a version of the Sim card that, instead of slotting in, is hard-wired into some of the latest phones and smart watches.
If you bought a 2018 iPhone, you have an eSim. Likewise it is there in the recent iPad Pro and Apple Watches. There’s also an eSim in the Samsung Galaxy Watch 4.
The list of eSim-equipped devices is growing fast, but for now Spark only supports a handful of devices: Samsung Galaxy Watch 4 and iPhone XR, XS and XS Max. Owners of other suitably equipped devices will need to wait.
eSim in Galaxy Watch 4
Spark timed today’s launch to coincide with the launch of the Galaxy Watch 4. Spark offers what it calls the Unlimited Wearable Plan to customers buying the watch but they must also have a Spark phone plan.
The Unlimited Wearable Plan gives customers data, calls and texts for $15 per month. Spark says unlimited data, calls and texts which means after you’ve downloaded 22GB Spark will drop the data speed to a lower rate.
If you manage to get through more than 22GB of data on a watch you deserve a medal, especially as you must already have a phone to get the Spark plan.
New iPhone owners can activate their eSim with Spark using a QR code. If you already have a suitable iPhone, you’ll need to visit a Spark store to have your current mobile number and plan switched to the eSim. This leaves the card slot free to take another number or plan. It doesn’t have to be with Spark.
This is a beach head for the eSim in the New Zealand market. Spark’s move will spur its rivals to get a move on with their plans. Vodafone has already hinted it has something on the way.
Lots of reasons to like eSims
One advantage is that there’s no need to stuff around removing and installing fiddly little cards. This is handy for phone owners, but essential in tiny devices like smart watches. It’s also important for industrial users and others wanting to use cellular connections in their Internet-of-Things devices.
Another feature of the eSim is that it allows a phone owner to add a second account, possibly from another carrier. This would be useful if you often travel overseas or if you need to work in a part of New Zealand only serviced by one carrier that’s not your first choice. Some people use this to keep separate work and private connections on a single device.