Hard News by Russell Brown

36

Sky and 2020

On May 1 this year, it will be 21 years since Telecom launched its first real consumer ISP – Xtra – kicking off the mainstreaming of of the internet in New Zealand. The company had finally surrendered its stance that the country needed no more than its business IT services and its (already by then old-fashioned) educational network NZ Online, and the more adventurous ordinary folks flocked to pay $5 an hour to "cybersurf".

But Telecom offered more than a connection. Xtra was also a content provider. Behind the infamous X-ville image map lay a small media empire, offering news and magazine content, generated by a mostly young, keen editorial team. A few months later, Clear Communications took a similar tack with with the Clear Net home page.

Phone companies clearly felt that they needed interests in content to woo customers online – and, hopefully, tap them for a little more cash once they got there. Xtra's excitable, unorthdox general manager, American Chris Tyler, pitched we journalists his vision of developing a "media engine" that Telecom would soon be able to sell to other telcos.

In the end, it came to fairly little. Xtra soldiered on as an editorial enterprise for some time, but it became clear that customers could find their own stuff online and Telecom would have little success in fencing them in to its own offerings. These days, Xtra.co.nz resolves to the Yahoo NZ page, a home for commodity news and the country's worst commenters.

A few weeks ago, I heard, second-hand, the thoughts of one of the Vodafone managers working on his company's proposed merger with Sky TV. He was astonished at how old-fashioned the culture was there, at how poorly they understood the internet. It confirmed my guess that Sky, which has prospered (to the extent that it still makes most of the money in New Zealand television) under the nailed-down model of pay TV, desperately needed the relative hipness of a telco partner.

In a sense, Sky is Telecom 20 years ago; a company with a prodigious lock on the market being forced by new entrants to do things it has traditionally not wanted to do. Vodafone could be its change agent.

Or not, as it transpires. The Commerce Commission has, to some surprise, declined clearance for the deal. The Commission's chair Mark Berry explained the reasoning today:

“The proposed merger would have created a strong vertically integrated pay-TV and full service telecommunications provider in New Zealand owning all premium sports content. We acknowledge that this could result in more attractive offers for Sky combined with broadband and/or mobile being available to consumers in the immediate future. However, we have to take into account the impact of a merger over time, and uncertainty as to how this dynamic market will evolve is relevant to our assessment,” Dr Berry said.

“Around half of all households in New Zealand have Sky TV and a large number of those are Sky Sport customers. Internationally, the trend for bundles that package up broadband, mobile and sport content is growing. Given the merged entity’s ability to leverage its premium live sports content, we cannot rule out the real chance that demand for its offers would attract a large number of non-Vodafone customers.

“To clear the merger we would need to have been satisfied that it was unlikely to substantially lessen competition in any relevant market. The evidence before us suggests that the potential popularity of the merged entity’s offers could result in competitors losing or failing to achieve scale to the point that they would reduce investment or innovation in broadband and mobile markets in the future. In particular, we have concerns that this could impact the competiveness of key third players in these markets such as 2degrees and Vocus.

“This is also against a backdrop of fibre being rolled out, making it an opportune time for the merged entity to entice consumers to a new offer. If significant switching occurred, the merged entity could, in time, have the ability to price less advantageously than without the merger or to reduce the quality of its service. Given we are not satisfied that we can say that competition is unlikely to be substantially lessened by the proposed merger, we must decline clearance.”

Sky's shares are tumbling in the hours since the news. And yet, Sky made nearly half a billion dollars in revenue and $60 million in profits in the past year. The local launch of the Viceland channel on Sky also serves as a caution about the real ability of content creators to make money on the open internet. Even Vice, the enfant terrible of online TV, realised it needed the reliable dollars of linear television. Sure, the growth is over, but the income isn't.

But there's a cliff-edge ahead. In 2020, New Zealand Rugby renegotiates its coverage deal, which sustains the game in this country. The chair of NZ Rugby's board is Brent Impey, the former CEO of MediaWorks. Does anyone think he won't do everything he can to control those rights and maximise the benefit to his organisation?

It's not hard to see Impey approaching Spark (or, for that matter, Vodafone) and pitching them a deal where they do all the hard stuff – technical delivery, marketing, customer relations – in exchange for the ability to bundle premium content with their services. As Spark has demonstrated on a smaller scale with Lightbox, telcos don't even need to directly make money from that content.

2020 is also the year targeted for 80% of New Zealand households to have access to fibre internet – and for the special regulations pertaining to the UFB rollout to be replaced by a new regulatory framework. MBIE began taking feedback on what that new framework should look like in July last year.

The submissions make interesting, if dense, reading. Most submitters, including Spark and Vodafone, view the Commission's proposed 15mbit/s "anchor" product as plainly unambitious (given that our early-adopter household already has gigabit service, yeah). Retail providers are looking forward to having access to "dark fibre" on the network, rather than buying services from Chorus. But however the rules eventually fall, it seems clear that 2020 will be a year of change: new means of wholesale acccess, new products – and the availability of the country's most valuable screen content.

It seems clear that 2020 is going to be a very interesting year.

18

Public Address and PressPatron

Last week we flicked the switch on something that's been a while coming: a new payments platform called PressPatron that provides a way for you to support not only Public Address, but, before long, a range of other blogs and websites – all from a single account that you control.

The delivery of PressPatron is a testament to the vision and persistence of Wellingtonian Alex Clark, who developed his idea in an MA thesis on news funding models, then found investors, hired developers and got his product built. His plans extend beyond independent media and beyond New Zealand, and I'm really proud to have hosted the very first deployment.

Now that a soft launch with readers who had previously been supporting the site via PayPal has been staged with just a handful of minor problems, we're ready to invite everyone in. You can simply go to our Supporters page to set up an account.

There's no paywall to get past, and in our case anyway, there won't be. (My main contribution to the project was point out to Alex that for sites like this a paywall was neither necessary or desirable.)

Some of you have been supporting us monthly for a while, either through PayPal or bank transfer, and I'm extremely grateful for that, but I'm inviting you now to switch to PressPatron. It's far better for me as a publisher and offers a lot more to you as a subscriber. You can also make one-off contributions and there should eventually be a way for you to direct those to particular bloggers. I get a clear statement of earnings each month, which I'll publish.

What will I do with the income? Well, it's early days yet and I've let contributions run down in the last few months in anticipation of the new platform, so I'll see what happens. Initially, the money will hopefully make it worth my while simply operating the site, but I want it to help fund some deeper journalism by me and our other bloggers. If I can deliver a story I think is important without having to try and shop it to another editor (who has probably had her or his freelance budget cut three times in the past six months), that's a great result for me. At any rate, I hope to at least be able to justify blogging more frequently.

But the site is due for a refresh of both its design and structure and it would be good to embark on that this year. I'm also wondering about moving to more multi-author "topic" blogs like our disability blog, Access.

But let's see what happens. For now, I'm delighted to have PressPatron up and running.

You can read more and create an account via our new Supporters page.

This is probably also a good time to remind you about the Public Address mailing list, which sends out links to new posts most weekdays.

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In a somewhat related vein, Public Address last week switched from http to the more secure https protocol. Your existing http bookmarks should siply redirected to the new, secure URL, but that hasn't been working forsome people (me included). The fix until the CactusLads work it out is to edit your browser bookmark, so that it starts https:// rather than http:// – or simpley go to the home page and create a new bookmark from that.

7

Friday (Thursday) Music: Heavens

The first year I went to Splore was the year Erykah Badu played. My memory is of arriving on the Friday afternoon to an idyll where everyone was smiling, the sun shone and children frolicked. I felt like the 5000th person to find paradise.

That evening, as the diva wound into her set, the heavens of paradise opened. I mean, really opened. It was a tropical cloudburst. Everyone who wasn't too wasted to move bolted for shelter and I wound up in the falafel stall, helping the owners tip gallons of water off their tarp every couple of minutes. In its way, it was quite a fulfilling community experience.

About half an hour later the rain stopped and everyone was happy – apart from the people at our campsite who'd decided it might be nice to air out their tent and toddled off down the hill leaving all the windows open.

The Auckland region's summer pluviality looks like being on show this year too. I went and bought some $20 gumboots at the No.1 Shoe Warehouse this morning, and discovered I was the fifth Splorer who'd been in for wellies in the half hour the shop had been open.

It'll be fine, even if the weather isn't. It's not like it's Glastonbury. Tapapakanga Regional Park is not Worthy Farm, there aren't a hundred thousand punters, the promoters are prepared and the sandy soil drains well. Most of all, it looks pretty sweet for Saturday night, when Dub Pistols bring the party to the main stage and a remarkable lineup – Tall Black Guy, Courtesy, John Morales and Frank Booker, in that order – commands the DJ stage.

So yes, that's where I'll be. You can check my Twitter for rain jokes and silly pictures.

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I was pleased yesterday when new vinyl from The Nudge turned up in the post.

"Oh," I thought, counting three tracks on it. "A new 12" single."

Turns out, Dark Arts is more of an album and all of side two is the 24-minute prog-funk epic 'Bring Me Your Love'.

There's a video for the title track, the shortest of the three:

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It's a shame it had to happen over his dead body, but Prince's catalogue (or a fair chunk of it) is available for the first time on Spotify and Apple Music – and even better, it's remastered. FACT mag has a guide to the 10 greatest Prince albums.

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Over at Audioculture, David McLennan tells the story of almost-forgotten feature of the Wellington punk scene: the Cuba Mall Sesssions of 1979.

And Redmer Yska digs even deeper to find the totally forgotten weekly entertainment magazine published by the owners of the Truth newspaper in the 1950s: Joy.

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Because we live in strange times: Michigan Republicans have suggested Kid Rock for the US Senate.

And on the other side, Moby claims the inside word on what intelligence agencies have on Trump.

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The particular art of reggae music has a feeling all its own. And you can own some of that feeling via a new set of silk-screened prints from the Soul Jazz-aligned Sounds of the Universe store. I just love this Tubby one.

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Tunes!

Oh my, this is awesome. Wellington's Lord Echo has busted out this fluidly funky track from his forthcoming album Harmonies as a straight-up free download. More info and preorders here.

From Auckland's A Label Called Success, this electronic, ethereal taster for the Space Above album that's out tomorrow (ie: Friday).

And finally, Greg Wilson has mixed together 20 of the hard-to-find edits and reworks he played in his 2016 sets. Track listing and separate embeds here.

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The Friday Music Post is sponsored by:

Songbroker

Representing New Zealand music

26

I tried Sativex: it was no fun at all

Sativex, an oromucosal spray, is the only pharmaceutical-grade medical cannabis product approved by Medsafe for use in New Zealand. It can't simply be prescribed by doctors – even after promised changes to regulations, prescriptions will have to be approved by an expert panel. The only use approved by Medsafe is in the treatment of pain associated with multiple sclerosis, but approval can be sought for other uses.

So there are hoops. But the main reason for the low uptake of Sativex in New Zealand is that it's not subsidised by Pharmac – and thus costs patients up to $1300 a month. One of the reasons that Sativex is not subsidised by Pharmac is the finding by the agency's Pharmacology Therapeutics Advisory Committee that:

 … the risk of diversion in the New Zealand setting, should Sativex be funded, is high due to the inherent nature of its active substances and the ease of administration.

Is that really the case? Would Sativex be diverted for recreational use if it was funded? Does a 50-50 mixture of the two main cannabinoids, THC and CBD (which is typically found at far lower levels in recreational weed), even get you high? Trying some seemed one way to find out more, so I said yes when a patient friend offered me a day's worth of sprays. Given the nature of the ingredients, there was no real harm that could come to me and I would not be able to overdose.

The only time my patient friend and I could get together was Sunday morning. She dropped off the small bottle of spray with instructions to take 12 sprays altogether – seven and then a top-up of five sprays some hours later.

At 9am, I had five sprays, each containing 2.7 mg of THC and 2.5mg of CBD (yes, I got it the initial dose the wrong way around). The liquid in the spray is greenish and smells like weed, or maybe bongwater – but to make it more palatable it's strongly flavoured with peppermint. Effects started about 20 minutes after administration. It did not get me high. It did make me feel fuzzy-headed and tired, but I was able to go about my business.

I had the second dose of seven sprays at 12.30pm, so I could complete the experiment before handing the bottle back. This was a different matter.

The 12 sprays recommended by my friend turns out to be the maximum recommended daily dose (much higher doses have been administered in trials). Tolerance to THC builds quickly in users, but I'd dropped right in on the top. And because I'd taken the two doses only three and a half hours apart, my doses overlapped (the duration of the effect is comparable to eating cannabis).

I'm not sure if I'd call what happened next getting high, but there was certainly a psychoactive effect.

The two cannabinoids in Sativex have quite different impacts. THC produces the euphoric effect we associate with marijuana, while CBD, which is not psychoactive on its own, mitigates the effects of THC (this isn't why it's there in Sativex – it appears that CBD itself has a crucial role in easing MS symptoms and nerve pain).

Effectively, CBD seems to take the top off the THC high, especially at the concentration in which it's present in Sativex. So while I experienced perceptual effects and the odd short-term memory lapse, it was a weird feeling and I really did not like it. It wasn't any fun. The more so given that it took the top off my thinking in general. I felt dull-witted and couldn't send a text without wondering if I was saying the right thing.

I can only guess that had I consumed the same amount of THC alone – just over 32mg, or two or three times the recommended edible dose for casual recreational users – I'd have been high as a kite. And I think I would have preferred that.

Eventually, I figured I should do something and went for a ride down to the Big Gay Out. The bike-riding felt great – my legs were pumping and it was the highlight of the day – but I wasn't happy with the level of my attention to the road and felt the need to concentrate very hard. The scene down at Coyle Park was nice enough, but I didn't feel like staying long.

I got home and couch-lock set in while I watched the Brisbane Tens on TV. I felt not only tired, but anxious, a little nauseous and still oddly troubled by the absence of euphoria. I fretted about various things and felt frustrated at the slowness of my thinking. The blind pimple under my nose throbbed constantly.

I eventually felt better, but cancelled plans to go and see friends. I ordained takeaways for dinner, demolished a Cajun fish burger and chips, watched some TV with Fiona and had an early night. But when I got up to go to the toilet a couple of hours after going to bed, I noticed there was still a minor effect on my visual perception.

The comparison that occurred to me was to when someone gave me a tablet of epilepsy medication at a party 30-odd years ago, assuring me it was a great buzz – and I wound up feeling really awful and foggy-headed and having to find somewhere to lie down. Sativex wasn't nearly that bad, but it also wasn't my idea of fun.

There was one thing that potentially mucked up my experiment, and that was that on Sunday morning I was feeling pretty jaded on account of having vigorously celebrated a friend's Significant Birthday party the night before. THC is metabolised in the liver and it's possible my liver was a bit overworked and that that contributed to both the way I felt and the duration of the effects.

So … would anyone divert Sativex for recreational use? Well, I can tell you that I wouldn't. The dose of CBD that I'd been led to believe would make me feel relaxed paradoxically made me anxious. (The warning in the official Sativex FAQ that "Some people may also feel depressed or confused" seemed more on the money.) As Fiona pointed out, it seemed to have put me off my stride. "It's interrupting my flow," I agreed.

It's quite likely that other people in other circumstances would feel differently and clearly the impact would have been different had I spaced out my doses, or had the big dose before bed.

But the main thing is that for my friend (and others like her), it makes the nerve pain associated with MS manageable and allows her to get by with a low or no dose of the more-readily-prescribed opioids that leave her too zonked to function. I'm also not certain Sativex would be as useful as a high-THC-ratio product for general pain (notwithstanding that the Ministry of Heath was very keen for the late Helen Kelly to apply for it for her cancer pain).

But what it came down to is this: at some point, I realised that this didn't feel like getting high. It felt like I'd taken somebody else's medicine.

5

Listening Lounge 2017: More good talk at Splore

Family, sustainability, drug safety and election-year politics: that's the scope of the 2017 Splore Listening Lounge talk programme. The "headline act" sees the Mount Albert by-election contest come to Splore, as Labour's Jacinda Ardern and the Green Party's Julie Anne Genter meet on stage to talk about competing and cooperating in election year.

The two candidates know the festival and they know each other and they took no convincing when I asked them to be part of the lineup.

It's not the first time we've aired Auckland issues and aspirations for the city as part of The Listening Lounge. Most Splorers come from Auckland and we've found that thinking about Auckland at a slight remove from the place works really well.

The Listening Lounge will also feature a talk about the "circular economy" with Air New Zealand board member Linda Jenkinson and her new business partner Ryan Everton, the provider of the reusable Globelet cups and water bottles being used at Splore. New Zealand Drug Foundation director Ross Bell and harm-reduction pioneer Wendy Allison will discuss drug safety, and members of Fat Freddy's Drop (and their kids) will talk about family in the context of the band whanau.

Listening Lounge 2017 timetable, Living Lounge stage, Saturday February 18.

10.30am: We Are Family

Warm fuzzies to start you off. Fat Freddy's Drop's Joe Lindsay, Joe's son Benny (DJ Bobo) and Benny's uncle Mark 'MC Slave' Williams (and his kids) talk about family culture in the context of the wider Freddy's whanau.

11am: The Circular Economy

Globelet inventor Ryan Everton and his new business partner (and Air New Zealand board member) Linda Jenkinson talk about reusable everything and why plastic is good.

11.30: How To take Drugs (Or Not)

New Zealand Drug Foundation director Ross Bell and drug-checking pioneer Wendy Allison on the controversial issue of harm reduction. Is accepting that people will sometimes take drugs okay if it saves lives? Come for the advice.

12:00: Jacinda Ardern and Julie Anne Genter

The Mt Albert by-election comes to Splore! They like each other, but they're opponents – how does that work? And is the by-election the perfect example to demonstrate how Labour and The Greens' cooperation pact can work in election year?