Optus takes aim at Foxtel boss as it works to close EPL buffering gap

Arvind Hickman
By Arvind Hickman | 13 September 2016
David Epstein, Optus VP of regulatory and corporate affairs

Optus is working on closing the buffering gap of its English Premier League (EPL) coverage and has reminded fans it offers Optus Sport on its satellite service – the same one that is used by Fox Sports.

In an exclusive interview with AdNews, Optus’ vice president of regulatory and corporate affairs David Epstein also took exception to remarks Foxtel CEO Peter Tonagh's recently made about streaming being inferior to satellite for live sport.

Epstein says that Tonagh’s views, expressed in AdNews last week, are what you’d expect from an incumbent broadcaster when a new player has entered the marketplace, but were "misplaced".

“The online delivery platform is a relatively new thing and people will take time to adjust to this,” he says.

“Peter has made some points about how online delivery works, whether it is suitable for one-off big events as opposed to other events. I’d just point out that an EPL season is not a one-off like the Melbourne Cup, nor is it like the Super Bowl.

“People will choose how they want to watch things according to some of the motivators they might have.”

Epstein admits that Optus has received its share of “brick bats as well as bouquets”, but the telco is increasingly finding customers are adjusting to Optus Sport and “welcoming some of the innovations we are bringing to the table”.

Mind the gap

One of the major bugbears of EPL fans has been a buffering delay of up to a minute between action at the ground and the streamed coverage on the box. This has meant that fans can have key moments in a game, such as goals, spoiled on social media before footage hits their screens.

Epstein says Optus would like to reduce the delays in transmission as much as possible, but the current state of the technology made it challenging. The problem lies with the fact broadcast signals are not in a format native to online sports coverage and it has to be translated into different delivery mechanisms, known as recoding. This is not the case for transmissions via radiowave or satellite, even though these technologies still encounter very minor delays in reality.

“There’s different delays for different technologies, but there’s no doubt that down the track these things will eventually come together," Epstein says.

“I’m old enough to remember some very delayed terrestrial TV, sometimes up to half an hour. In the old days they used to send terrestrial TV by kangaroo hops down the microwave links between Melbourne and Sydney, whereas these days you beam it up via satellite.”

In other countries, live football leagues, such as Japan's J League and Germany's Bundesliga, are regularly delivered via over the top streaming.

“There will be always people at the moment, with the current state of online delivery technology, that would prefer something else – we get that," Epstein adds. 

"We will work as hard as possible with our technology partners and our broadcasters partners to close that gap, but it can’t be denied we offer the satellite service for people who want the faster delivery mechanism.”

The telco also confirmed it has begun running external ads, the first from technology company Samsung, and has started showing programming of football tournaments in addition to the Premier League, such as Australia's Futsalroos world cup campaign.

Satellite option exists

To watch EPL via Optus' satellite service will set fans back $20 per month with an upfront installation fee of $250. Although this provides "a superior service", it's more expensive than the streaming service, which is $15 for customers with eligible phone plans between $30 to $84, and free for post-paid and broadband plans of $85 and above.

Epstein points out that Optus’s satellite service is comparable to any other on the market and their streaming technology experiences the same problems that any other would on the market, including if you were to watch Fox Sports via Foxtel Play of Foxtel Go.

“Some of the things [Tonagh was saying] were gratifying. He praised the high quality of the Optus satellite, the service which delivers Sky and Foxtel, and that’s just one of our delivery platforms we are offering the EPL on," Epstein adds.

An unlikely ally

Although Optus has been copping criticism from some fans, it has also received support from a streaming rival.

Stan chief executive Mike Sneesby tells AdNews the potential of internet delivered television to deliver sport and entertainment is an “evolution change in television” never seen before. He says the technology to overcome the live buffering gap already exists, but it will take time to iron out some of the complexity in the back end.

“The reality is all of the technology pieces to enable it in a seamless high definition viewing experience are all there today, but anyone who is rolling out a new product has to iron out their teething problems and that will happen,” he says. “This is not a long journey…the capability is there today.”

For some fans, however, the grass may always be greener.

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