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Full credit: will Spark cope with the Rugby World Cup?

Paul Brislen, Editor. 13 May 2019, 7:58 am

The Rugby World Cup is approaching and with it a new way for New Zealanders to watch the game. 

This time the rugby extravaganza will be broadcast in New Zealand primarily online, prompting much discussion about whether Spark, which acquired the rights along with TVNZ, is up to the job.

Spark, which has set up a content division and has been dishing out subscriber video on demand (SVOD) content for some time under its Lightbox brand, has also been offering live sport content and has been under close watch by media as it prepares for the RWC, which kicks off in September.

In the seven weeks since Spark Sport launched the company has screened 3,700 hours of content, including 79 live events and 135 on demand events. Of those events, only two had issues - the Azerbaijan Grand Prix saw a problem with pre-start coverage and the women's hockey ANZAC Day test between Australia and New Zealand saw coverage delayed not because of technical issues but because of human error, says Spark spokeswoman Ellie Cross.

"While there have been a couple of highly publicised issues, they stemmed from human error and procedural issues. What should be celebrated is that the technical build of the platform is proving to be really robust - and Spark networks are supporting a great experience for customers." Cross reports Spark Sport had a "98.7%" uptime during April when the glitches occurred and while she says that's still not as good as Spark wants, it amounts to minutes of delay rather than catastrophic failure.

Delivering the content from the stadium to customer is a multi-leg journey that involves a number of players.

The home broadcaster, based in Japan, delivers the content to Spark in New Zealand via international submarine cable, one of which is conveniently part-owned by Spark. The Southern Cross Cable network doesn't connect directly with Japan but there are enough cables coming in and out of the region that any breakages shouldn't pose a problem. Connectivity into New Zealand is also now more secure following the completion of a number of competing submarine cables.

Once here, the content is handed over to a Content Distribution Network (CDN).

Spark's CDN partner is Akamai, one of the global leaders in this space, and the two companies have been working to ensure New Zealand customers can access the rugby live on the day.

"Their network is being scaled to support a peak throughput for the Rugby World Cup of 2.8Tbit/s. This is based on a planning assumption of 500,000 concurrent streams and the expected mix of devices and bit rates."

Spark is helping to fund the upgrade needed, and Akamai is currently load testing to determine where any extra capacity will be needed around New Zealand. 

"Akamai has modelled the throughput requirements on a per operator basis and are collaborating with New Zealand network providers."

Delivery from Akamai to the customer's property is largely dependent on which ISP the customer uses, and of course what technology the customer has access to.

"You need a decent broadband connection to watch streaming services like Spark Sport, Netflix and Lightbox. The general rule of thumb is that if you can watch streamed content (such as a YouTube video or Lightbox) on the device that you want to watch Spark Sport on during peak hours (8-9pm in the evening), and are happy with the viewing experience, you should be OK to watch the Rugby World Cup."

In technical terms, customers should be aiming for a connection speed of at least 6Mbit/s on a mobile or tablet device and 15Mbit/s for a big screen TV.

Once delivered to the house, the final step of course is getting it across the house to user's device of choice. Spark recommends making sure that leg of the journey is covered as well. Home wifi devices and in-home wiring are often the source of problems with internet connectivity and customers are well advised to sort that out ahead of time.

Of course, for some customers it's not as simple as downloading the app and ordering in the chips and dip. Some rural and remote customers have been concerned they won't be able to watch the games live because of poor or intermittent internet access.

"There will be a small minority of customers who won't have good enough broadband to watch Spark Sport. They should contact their ISP to see if there are any options to improve their broadband. If they have a slow ADSL connection, it might be worth seeing if Spark or another Wireless Internet Service Provider (WISP) could provide them with an alternative broadband connection."

Spark is also offering the service to commercial premises, such as bars and clubs, and is planing to talk with rural schools that have fibre connectivity to see if they are interested in screening the games as well.

And finally, what is the plan should everything go pear shaped?

"Spark has an operational contingency plan in place for the Rugby World Cup 2019. If there were to be a widespread and significant issue stopping viewers from accessing a match directly from Spark Sport, Rugby World Cup matches would be switched to live broadcast on TVNZ DUKE at a few minutes' notice."

Better to have a back-up plan and not need it than have no plan at all.

And after all that it's over to the players on the pitch to deliver. No pressure, boys.


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