Still stinging from its 2018 World Cup livestreaming disaster, Optus has restricted its 4K live broadcast of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to the few hundred customers running a fixed 5G mobile service to their homes.
The company’s partnership with Seven Network will deliver a single channel of 4K content culled from Seven Network’s more than 52 live streaming channels – but it will only be available to what Clive Dickens, vice president of product development, TV and content, told Information Age was “a subset of a subset” of its customers.
Streaming 4K broadcasts will only be available to customers of the Optus 5G Home fixed-broadband service who have also subscribed to the Fetch TV service and opted for the premium Fetch Mighty set-top box (STB).
With around 340 5G sites built and 1,200 expected to be live by March, Optus is spruiking its fixed-wireless broadband solution to the estimated 138,000 homes within its 5G coverage area.
The 200 early trial customers of the new 5G Home service, Optus said at its November launch, were getting peak download speeds of around 164Mbps and off-peak speeds of up to 400Mbps.
Take-up figures remain confidential but Dickens said “we don’t expect our run rate to change” as Optus pushes ahead with its seven to 10-year 5G rollout – suggesting it could have 2,500 5G base stations by the time the 2020 Olympics start on 24 July.
Just how many customers also take Fetch, and opt for the necessary 4K-capable STB, remains to be seen – but it’s an extremely limited target market for the premium broadcast of an event that Kurt Burnette, Seven West Media chief revenue officer, said would be “the most-watched Olympics and the biggest digital event in Australian streaming history”.
What about the NBN?
Limiting the 4K stream to 5G Home customers “will allow us to ensure end-to-end delivery of 4K Ultra HD Video content to exclusive Optus customers,” Dickens said in announcing the partnership.
Upon the recent launch of a planned 4K broadcast of 2020/21 Champions League and Premier League matches, Optus CEO Allen Lew said the company had been “building our 5G network from the ground up to be video optimised” and that the 5G network was “critical when streaming premium 4K Ultra HD 4K video.”
Yet 5G is hardly “critical” for 4K broadcasts, and 4K video streaming doesn’t require anywhere near the bandwidth provided over the 5G service.
Amazon and Netflix suggest a 4K stream needs 15Mbps to 25Mbps of bandwidth and many fixed-broadband customers are already happily streaming Netflix, Stan, Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and other services at 4K resolution.
So why isn’t Optus – which recently edged out TPG as Australia’s fastest national broadband network (NBN) service provider and has openly admitted 5G won’t replace the NBN – also offering the 4K stream to its more than 540,000 fixed NBN customers?
“The Optus NBN has a real mix of technologies, and every one has different performance characteristics,” Dickens explained, adding that he “would love to be able to bring this content to Optus NBN next year” if NBN’s mooted faster services eventuate.
Yet 4K UltraHD live streaming of premium sport “is completely different technology” to the 4K video on demand services that streaming customers are already using, he said, noting that “there are almost no similarities in the way the consumer receives the signal.”
“When you watch Netflix on your 4K TV, those episodes are cached at the edge of our network but a stream coming from Tokyo live is a completely different end-to-end experience.”
There may be other reasons for Optus’ conservative approach: last year, the company made considerable noise about its $8m exclusive deal to stream 64 matches from the FIFA World Cup in Russia – but was forced to cede the rights to SBS after customers protested when its streaming service disastrously buckled under the demand.
The fail came shortly after Optus Sport executive producer and presenter Richard Bayliss told Guardian Australia that “I don’t think people should be concerned at all” because the company’s streaming technology “is light years ahead of where it was a year or two ago.”
Learning from history – and the ACCC
Telcos have worked hard to preserve the mystique around 5G, trying to foster its game-changing reputation and drum up enthusiasm in a disinterested public by crowing about marginal use cases such as the world’s first 5G drone flight, 8K live video broadcasts, and a world-first 5G data call.
Given that 14.8 million Australians watched at least part of the 2016 Rio Olympics – including 2.9m through Seven’s digital channels – the option of a 4K livestream of the Olympics would surely resonate much more with the general public than previous use cases.
There may be other reasons Optus is focused on quality over quantity this time around.
With telecommunications complaints increasing, an increasingly woke Australian Competition & Consumer Commission has recently intensified scrutiny of telcos that have let down their customers.
Optus – which has been fined millions by the ACCC for NBN lies, “dodgy” mobile content services, misleading NBN emails and false NBN speed claims in the last two years alone – may therefore be trying to avoid further disappointing customers or tainting its 5G services before they’re even out of the gate.
The company has big hopes for 5G Home, which will allow it to connect customers without relying on the NBN at faster speeds that are “cheaper than most NBN products on the market”, Dickens said.
The trend towards fixed-5G services is likely to accelerate in 2020 when carriers embrace them as an alternative to fibre rollouts, according to a recent Juniper Research analysis.