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How Australia's Optus Missed the Goal at the World Cup
Optus claimed it experienced "unprecedented demand" for live video streaming during the 2018 World Cup, but what else would it expect?

"There are still five days to go before the last ball is kicked at the World Cup, but the sense of relief in South Africa is already palpable,” wrote Gideon Rachman for the Financial Times in 2010. “Over the past month, the country has put itself on trial by hosting the world’s biggest sporting event.”

Rachman’s words about the southernmost African country putting itself “on trial” could easily have been written about any recent global sporting event—from the Commonwealth Games to the one­two punch of countries hosting both a World Cup and an Olympic Games just a few years apart.

Brazil, for instance, managed to pull off hosting not only the 2014 World Cup, but also the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. So did Russia in 2014, when the country rushed to complete venues in and around Sochi that were used for the 2014 Winter Olympics as well as this year’s World Cup.

“When it came to the World Cup, the government got its act together,” wrote Rachman of the 2010 contest in South Africa, “partly because it was put under huge external pressure by the threat that the tournament would be moved, if deadlines and promises were broken.”

So what does this have to do with streaming?

Everything.

While the focus of these host countries is often on ways to move people to the venues, it’s also on ways to move bits from the venues to the waiting world.

In the case of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, a number of broadcast companies paid to bring in equipment—from satellite uplinks to “big iron” routers, both necessary to move data between multiple host cities and out to the rest of the world—and then paid again to have this expensive equipment removed from the venues for use elsewhere.

Sports fans take their global events very seriously, and any small lapse in technology is widely seen as disastrous—both in the moment and in the long run.

One need look no further than late June 2018, when Optus, Australia’s second­largest mobile wireless carrier, caught the unenviable public attention of the Australian prime minister after it failed to successfully stream opening­round matches for the 2018 World Cup.

After the Optus chief executive Allen Lew stated that Optus’ failure to deliver the opening matches successfully was due to technical issues based on what he called “unprecedented demand,” technology pundits pointed out that the World Cup was, by definition, an event of unprecedented demand.

“It is the biggest sporting event in the world,” Trevor Long told Australia’s ABC News Radio, “and anyone could have checked previous TV ratings to see how many people would tune in.”

The failure got the attention of national soccer players, who asked Australian Prime Minster Malcolm Turnbull to intervene with Optus.

“I have spoken with the Optus CEO, Allen Lew,” the prime minster posted on Twitter, adding that Lew was “giving the World Cup streaming problems his personal attention and he believes it will be fixed this evening.”

Unfortunately, even with the CEO’s personal attention and a 48­hour moratorium—during which Optus asked joint rightsholder SBS, an Australian free­to­air broadcaster, to step in and broadcast some of the games that Optus owned the right to—the mobile provider was unable to fix its technical problems.

Technology pundit Long said this pointed to a deeper issue with the way Optus designed its system to deliver streaming to mobile devices.

“If you are looking for the World Cup and you’ve signed up to this Optus sport package,” wrote Long, “the way they’ve designed their network to deliver that television to mobile phones, tablets and screens around Australia has failed.”

What was the end result of this grand experiment? In a somewhat prescient interview with Telecom Times, a few days before the Optus fiasco, Jim O’Neil, principal industry analyst at Ooyala, an online video platform owned by Australia’s Telstra, noted that consumers of live sporting events are equally critical of over­the­top delivery (OTT) of live sports.

“Consumer frustration—particularly with the number of streaming services available to viewers—is driving improvements in the overall OTT experience,” said O’Neil. “[W]hile the television remains a popular choice, they should expect their customers to watch alternative content online simultaneously if they fail on any of those ‘Quality of Experience’ factors.”

O’Neil was right, except that he got it completely backwards in Ooyala’s parent company’s home country of Australia, as the Optus fiasco demonstrates. Rather than viewers only moving from TV to OTT if television fails to deliver, O’Neil missed the point that the opposite—viewers rapidly moving to TV if OTT fails—is more frequently true. The viewers may not like sitting in one place to view the event, but they at least know the television broadcast will deliver a consistent experience.

What started as an $8 million purchase of broadcast rights to the World Cup in Australia ended in Optus offering its half of games on traditional broadcast via SBS, which Lew spun as Optus having “provided several ways to watch the matches.” In addition, Optus offered refunds to consumers and advertisers alike, and “introduced a range of measures to address the technical issues experienced by some Optus Sport viewers.”

“Optus says yes to delivering this flexibility and choice,” said Lew. “We encourage people to download the Optus Sport App and give us a try.”

In some ways, Optus had to make a decision from expediency. But the first­world fiasco highlights a key point: We have to be careful when pointing an accusing finger at “third­world” countries and claiming that they don’t have their act together for global sporting events, while at the same time not testing our own infrastructure to handle these same global events across our own mobile or content delivery networks.

Infrastructure matters. All of it.

[This article appears in the September 2018 issue of Streaming Media magazine as "The Longest Meter."]

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