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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.

Sky Now competes with Spark

Elsewhere Stewart told Chris Keall at the New Zealand Herald Sky will be a more aggressive bidder when buying sports rights. He says: “If someone outbids us, they’re going to go broke”.

Of course he is talking about Spark Sport.

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.

Asymmetry

Yet Sport is only a small part of Spark’s business and it most definitely not the main game. Apart from anything else, Spark is about to embark on building a 5G mobile network. This could cost the thick end of a billion dollars over the next decade. There are other calls on its funds. Spark is multi-faceted business.

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.

Virtual signalling

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.

You can find the NZ Tech Podcast at all the usual places including the Tech Podcast webpage.

Direct link:

https://dts.podtrac.com/redirect.mp3/audio.simplecast.com/8e2abedf.mp3?aid=embed&rid=156401120037216924921

Spark esim Samsung Galaxy Watch 4

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.

Spark’s eSim press release.

Spark New Zealand managing director Simon Moutter is retiring. From 30 June customer director Jolie Hodson will take over.

Moutter remade, rebranded and renamed Telecom New Zealand.

He inherited a Telecom NZ that was not of his making. Moutter was the company’s chief operating office between 2003 and 2008, then spent four years as Auckland International Airport. He returned to Telecom as managing director in 2013.

During his absence, the government reformed the telecommunications industry. This triggered a set of moves that saw Chorus demerge from Telecom to win UFB fibre contracts.

From vertical integration to retail telco

The Telecom Moutter left was a vertically integrated incumbent. The Telecom he rejoined was a retail telco forced to a level playing field with 90-odd rivals.

His first challenge was to make sure the business survived the changes. His second challenge was to put it back on the path to thriving. Moutter achieved both these goals with distinction. Today’s Spark is a vibrant, competitive telco.

It remains New Zealand’s leading telco by size. Spark also leads its rivals on innovation. At the time Moutter joined Spark was number one in broadband connections. It still is, although its market share has dropped a little.

Mobile success

Back then it was number two in mobile behind. It has since caught up. You could even argue it is now the market leader. It definitely has a technical edge. Spark is leading the way to 5G mobile networks.

Moutter was in charge when the business changed its name. The move told the world it was no longer a telecommunications company. Since then it has moved into the media sector. It has a sizeable streaming TV service and has made significant investments in streaming sports media.

We don’t hear much about it, but Simon Moutter has done much to make Spark a more equitable workplace. Spark won the Rainbow tick. Moutter has also spoken out against race or gender discrimination. He has pushed Spark into the 21st century.

There’s lots to admire.

Jolie Hodson
Spark customer director Jolie Hodson takes over as Chief Executive in July.

It appears that Moutter planned his resignation and handover to Hodson some time ago. Yet the timing is a problem. Moutter leaves Spark while huge and risky projects remain unresolved.

This unfinished business may explain why investors pushed the company’s share price down 3.5 percent immediately on hearing the news. At the time of writing the share price has fallen further and ahead of the market. It is down a total of 4.5 percent since the announcement.

Spark faces three challenges

First, the Rugby World Cup. There are stories that people inside Spark are becoming ever more nervous about this project.

Even if everyone involved with fibre network connections works long hours, there still isn’t enough time between now and the RWC kick off to install fibre to all the customers who want it. This problem could blow up as the event gets closer.

Spark Sport’s app fell over last weekend. The company emphasises the software is still in beta and failures are expected. Even so, the wheels fell off. That’s ominous.

My contacts tell me there is widespread pessimism about the apps’ ability to deliver inside Spark.

Spark prestige

It’s not just about money. Spark Sport and the Rugby World Cup are high profile, prestige projects. If Spark succeeds it wins both money and kudos. If it fails, the company’s reputation is at stake.

Spark’s second challenge is 5G. Moutter set a target of getting a 5G network up and running in time for the America’s Cup yacht races. They start next year.

Delivering on that narrow promise isn’t hard. Spark can borrow necessary spectrum in a small area around Auckland’s harbour. Installing half a dozen 5G towers is no big deal.

On paper there is the unresolved matter of Huawei building the 5G network. No matter, Spark has other options.

A more pressing issue is an Auckland Harbour-only 5G network might not satisfy customers elsewhere.

Rival mobile companies are not yet in a position to invest in 5G. Getting there first is important. It would cement Spark as the mobile leader without question. A prolonged delay on a wider roll-out could see customers and investors lose confidence.

Agile

Spark’s third challenge flies under the radar. Moutter lead Spark in a move to Agile working.

While all the official noises from inside the company say it has been a success, that’s not the message that’s circulating elsewhere in the industry with Spark employees keen to find employment elsewhere. There is still time for this to go wrong.

It’s normal for a leader to leave a company without drawing a line under big items, but Moutter’s personal brand is associated with all three of these. There may be nothing to it, but investors and analysts are not convinced. Moutter and Hodson have three months to show otherwise.

I write about Huawei New Zealand’s long-term role in the nation’s mobile sector for the New Zealand Herald.

Huawei has played a central role in New Zealand’s telecommunications infrastructure for a decade. The company’s New Zealand deputy managing director, Andrew Bowater, says it started working with 2degrees four years before the telco’s network was switched on in 2009.

The 2degrees partnership played a crucial role when in 2013, Telecom, now Spark, chose Huawei’s hardware to power its 4G mobile network. Bowater says; “We wouldn’t have won that without 2degrees, we wouldn’t be here today without them.”

That relationship cuts both ways. Huawei provided 2degrees with the money needed to build its network with a vendor finance arrangement. Bowater says the two companies passed an important milestone in 2013 when a local bank bought the debt off Huawei.

Huawei’s relationship with Spark went deep. The two worked together to break new ground, they were the first to use 700 MHz spectrum for a 4G mobile network. New Zealand got that ahead of the world. Likewise, they were early getting 4.5G technology to market.


Read the full story in the New Zealand Herald.