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It’s no secret that, for most New Zealanders, broadband is world class. Our UFB network was always a good thing. It proved its worth again since the Covid–19 forced large numbers to work from home.

Fibre is by far the best technology for these times. 1 It is reliable and has ample bandwidth. Most homes have enough capacity for people to work and hold video conference meetings while others watch streaming video.

A 100 mbps plan is plenty for working from home. No applications demand more bandwidth. You could run half a dozen separate video conferences and still have headroom to play with.

Get a gig

Yet gigabit plans cost only a few dollars more. Unlimited data plans are affordable too. Few starting today sign up for less than a gigabit connection with unlimited data.

This combination can cost as little as $80. Taking inflation into account that’s often less that we paid for dial-up or ADSL. If money is short, there are cheaper fibre plans.

We got to this point because a dozen years ago politicians from both main parties went into an election promising a fibre network.

An earlier generation of industry reforms forced Telecom NZ into operational separation. As part of that process, it build a fibre to the node network. This made building fibre to the home easier.

Lucky first time

Were we lucky? Well, we were in the sense that everything needed to get to this point converged at the right time. Although it may not have seemed like that back then.

This was in 2009. The 2008 Global Financial Crisis was still a threat.

In the November 2019 edition of the Download magazine I interviewed Sir John Key and Steven Joyce about the original UFB plan. Times were tough. A fibre laying infrastructure project was part of the plan to get New Zealand back on its feet.

As Sir John says:

“UFB was an ambitious programme. We executed it really well. You can contrast this with the NBN (National Broadband Network) in Australia. I spend a lot of time in Australia and the Australians are jealous that we delivered this fantastic outcome while they are still battling.”

The events of recent weeks have only served to underline this.

Lucky two times

The second lucky break was when Spark outbid Sky TV to buy the broadcast rights to the Rugby World Cup. Telcos around the world have stuck their feet in and out of broadcast sports rights. BT in the UK has some Premier League football. Optus and Telstra in Australia have links with sporting codes there.

Sparks’ plan to show Rugby as a digital stream was also ambitious. As it turns out it was alright on the night, apart from an early glitch.

We got lucky a second time because of that ambition. It became clear Spark had overreached. The networks were robust and strong. Yet they may not have been quite ready for millions of New Zealanders to watch the nation’s favourite sporting tournament online.

To prepare, Spark and the other telcos invested in beefing up their networks. Chorus and the fibre companies did the same. The entire industry brought forward about 18 months or so of network investment.

In the end it was over-engineered. The industry built almost half as much more capacity than needed. It was better to be safe than sorry.

It turns out that over-engineering gave networks more than enough capacity to deal with most of the nation working from home. In the next few days school and university students will be studying from home. We have the bandwidth.

There are challenges ahead. We will need more capacity and more headroom. The fibre companies and the telcos are working to stay well ahead of the demand curve. When it comes to broadband, the lucky country is New Zealand.

Bill Bennett edits the Download magazine for Chorus. 


  1. Many people who don’t have access to fibre tell me fixed wireless is good too. But some people have a less stellar experience. ↩︎

Every year throws up a long list of news stories, product launches and events. This year was better than most. Here are six 2019 stories that resonated with me. It’s a personal, unordered list and it’s written from a New Zealand perspective. You may have other highlights. Feel free to share them in the comments below.

Apple AirPods Pro

Apple AirPods Pro

Apple used a busy, noisy Auckland cafe to show off the AirPods Pro. By the time they hit New Zealand there was already an excited buzz about the noise cancelling ear buds. I expected a positive experience.

Even so, the sound quality was surprising. It wasn’t only the active noise cancelling, although that’s impressive enough. The AirPods sound is accurate. It doesn’t seem possible that something so small could sound so good.

My review says Airpods Pro offer affordable noise cancelling. I recommend you read this.

Samsung galaxy foldSamsung Galaxy Fold

Until 2019 it had been a long time since I left a product demonstration with a smile on my face. Then it happened twice in a short period. First with the Apple AirPods Pro, then a second time with the Samsung Galaxy Fold.

The price tag is be north of three grand (NZ$3400). Samsung’s first generation folding phone is a touch more fragile than I’d like. Yet here is the first major breakthrough in handset design since Apple’s first iPhone. Samsung has broken the mould and come up with real innovation.

Samsung’s Galaxy Fold is less a phone, more a small tablet that you can fold and carry in a pocket. You might even see it as a pocket computer. Either way, it is beyond impressive.

When folded it is a long slim phone, a little thicker and heavier than we’ve come to expect. Unfolded it is about the size of an iPad Mini and does much the same job.

Huawei showed its folding phone earlier at Mobile World Congress. A brief look confirmed it was a contender. So far, only one of the two models on show in Barcelona has made it to market in New Zealand.

No doubt there will soon be more, better folding phone designs. I’d love to see what Apple can do with this format: how about an iPhone that morphs into an iPad?

But for now, this is Samsung’s triumph.

César Azpilicueta

Spark Sport, Sky Sport Now

Spark Sport’s Rugby World Cup service came in for flak and some cruel media attention. That’s what you get for interfering with New Zealand’s favourite sporting code.

In my experience the streaming service worked fine during the RWC. I’ve racked up well over a hundred hours with the app. A lot of that was watching Premier League football1.

There have been hiccups, yet it is better experience than the BeIN service it replaced. My only gripe was I enjoyed the preview shows and the run-up coverage before big games on BeIN. Spark offers less of that. Also, half time is not so much fun without pundits.

Spark’s entry into streaming sport services has seen Sky lift its game. The new Sky Sport Now app has 12 channels of sport around the clock.

Sky Sport Now has excellent cricket coverage. It fills the European and international football gaps left by Spark. Most of the time there are enough channels to cover every game. Although there was one Champion’s League round where my team, Chelsea, only showed up as a replay later in the day.

I’m not complaining. The service is excellent. It’s good to see Spark and Sky compete by offering the best customer experience. It would be great if we had more of this kind of competitive tension.

The two streaming sport options are great value. Buying Sky Now and Spark Sport works out less each month than an old-style subscription to Sky’s satellite service. By my reckoning, there’s a broader selection of content to watch. That’s a win.

Deebot Ozmo 900 with Howl Bennett

Deebot Ozmo 900

Robot vacuums aren’t new. The Deebot Ozmo 900 updates the idea. It offers mopping as well as vacuuming. I had low expectations before I saw it in action. It impressed me once we used it. This is the only way to go.

The best part about the Ozmo 900 is that it’s low-slung body can get under beds, cupboards and tables. These are places where manual vacuuming gets hard. Another great aspect is, because it does all the work, you can vacuum more often keeping the house cleaner.

Ozmo 900 is a long way from the Androids science fiction writers promised for 2019. The good news is we don’t need to hire bladerunners to take them out when we’re done with them.

Auckland's first fibre
Steven Joyce installing Auckland’s first UFB cable – Albany – 24 August 2011

UFB: end of part 1

In the end builders finished the national UFB fibre network on time and under budget. That’s rare for a major infrastructure project and unusual given the project length. Read how the project started in The Download.

For me one of the clearest signs the original UFB project succeeded is that government found more money to connect another 169 areas. The so-called UFB2 takes coverage to around 85 percent of the country.

Another clear sign of success was Spark’s decision to stream Rugby World Cup coverage.

Next year, Chorus and central North Island fibre company UFF will offer 2Gbps and 4Gbps fibre. We’ve come a long way from ten years ago. Then a 30mbps fibre service looked like the last word in modern data communications.

Vodafone 5G

The Vodafone giant awakes

In recent years it seemed as if Vodafone’s New Zealand operation wasn’t going anywhere. In part this was because the parent company felt it had better things to invest in than the second telco in a small, remote country.

That changed in May. Infratil and Brookfield Asset Management took control in a $3.4 billion deal. Chief executive Jason Paris wasted no time getting the new owners to free up capital. This let Vodafone steal a march on Spark and get a sizeable 5G network running. Vodafone switched 5G on earlier this month.

There has also been an investment in customer support. That’s something that was an embarrassment in the past.

These initiatives are important, yet there’s more to the change. It’s as if Vodafone has had a vitamin injection. Now there is an energy to the business that wasn’t there before. It helps that Paris recruited fresh talent to senior positions, but it goes beyond that. It is as if the company has awoken from a slumber.

What it means in practice is that Spark faces greater competitive pressure than it did 18 months ago. Likewise the next tier of telcos; 2degrees, Vocus and so on, are also feeling the heat. Ten years after government restructured the industry we are seeing the competition those moves aimed to unleash.

Christchurch call

Six of the biggest tech moments of 2019 are positives. The seventh is also a positive, but it’s a positive that came about because of an horrific negative.

In May Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern spoke at the Christchurch Call summit in Paris. It was a response to the Christchurch mosque shootings. The terrorist shooter filmed his crimes, streaming them online in real time.

The summit attempts to force social media companies to take more responsibity for material they publish. During the year, 48 countries signed an agreement to stop social media publishing terror messages. The US didn’t sign.

It isn’t clear if the initiative will work. Yet it is a first step towards wrestling control of online media away from the murderers and criminals who use it as a weapon. I suspect there is more to do, but the longest of journeys starts with a single step.


  1. It could be more than 200 hours, I’m not counting ↩︎

Writing at the NZ Herald, Chris Keall reports on Spark increasing the data cap on fixed wireless plans to 600GB.

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.”

Limited offer

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.

Fast enough?

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.

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.

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.