Horse’s Mouth: Spark’s Andrew Pirie on making broadband accessible to those who can’t traditionally afford it

It’s been over a week since Spark launched Spark Jump, an initiative to provide subsidised broadband to families in need. We chat to Spark’s GM of corporate relations Andrew Pirie about the telco’s wider social strategy, its purpose and using technology to make a difference.

On Spark’s move to diversify its audience

I think as an organisation Spark wants to ensure we appeal to a wide range of New Zealanders and that means New Zealanders that represent New Zealand today and into the future. I think it’s fair to say that the old Telecom used to perhaps have an image which was a bit more traditional and probably identified more with an older demographic, probably more middle-class and, to be frank, more of a white demographic. So I think it’s not a case of trying to appeal to one particular demographic group over anyone else, it’s simply to make sure we’ve got a broad appeal, which resonates with all New Zealanders.

Over the past few years, we’ve tried to make our brand more relevant to younger New Zealanders and I think Maori, Polynesian, Asian groups are over-represented in younger demographics so it is important hat we are seen to be relevant and accessible to them. It’s not so much of a case of wanting to appeal to a particular ethnic or demographic segment but rather that we want to make sure we are relevant.

On Spark’s work with the Manaiakalani Trust

We invested well over two million through the Spark foundation through the education trust over the past four years … It’s had some exceptional results in terms of the improvement of learning outcomes and there’s a dozen schools which are part of that cluster, with Tamaki College also using digital learning. We worked with the foundation to not only get that humming but also an outreach programme meaning there are clusters of schools which are adopting the same methodology. We are talking up to 10,000 children around the country learning the intensive digital learning methodology. Everything they do is online. It’s a great programme. The critical thing from our point of view is helping kids who have a disadvantage.

On using technology to help communities

The work we have done through [Manaiakalani] has really given us a good understanding of some of the challenges you have in these communities where money is tight and families are under pressure. We identified a challenge is ensuring that kids have access to digital tech in the home as well as during their school hours. The government has already done an awesome job with the ultra fast broadband roll out in New Zealand, getting all schools wired up and giving them free internet connections. But the question is what happens when they get home? For the vast majority of New Zealand families, they have broadband at home and can do that but there is a gap and it tends to be an affordability gap. So we looked at that and wondered how we could help in that process.

On collaboration

We have this technology and we know we can use it to develop efficient and cost-effective solutions [like Spark Jump]to families that don’t have broadband at home at the moment. We talked with a range of community trusts, and noticed there were many set up around the country with the aim of helping to improve connectivity across the board. And often what they do is to try get funding to subsidise commercial broadband for people. The problem is that the cheapest broadband products you can get in the market are around 65 bucks a month, and most people pay more. But if you are someone who is really struggling and you’ve got your family to feed, that’s a lot of money for a lot of families. By talking to a lot of these trusts, we learnt that you can’t give away broadband completely free. It should be a hand up not a hand out. You are helping people get something and the price point was roughly $15, $4 to $5 a week was affordable. It’s not free, but not a lot of money either. But the critical thing we have decided is that ‘we’ did not want to be deciding who gets it and who doesn’t. We are leaving that decision to the community trusts and the partners we have on the ground. They know who these families are.

On footing the cost

[Spark Jump] is costing us money. The bigger it gets, the more it will cost. We aren’t looking to replace an existing customer with a customer who will pay us $15. If we get this right and we target the families in need, these are families who aren’t paying any money to Spark or any other provider today, so it’s about helping grow the market. It seems a small price to pay when viewed in the context of the scale of our business, with over 600,000 broadband customers. So if we do five or 10,000 [connections], maybe even more than that, to be frank, it’s not going to break the bank. It’s manageable and we think we can make a meaningful difference and not have significant impact in terms of our own bottom line.

And if we can do some good things, hopefully people will see Spark is doing the right thing. We have had tremendous feedback and internally it’s been amazing and one of the most successful things we’ve announced internally for a long time and externally lots of people are engaging saying it’s a great idea. We are producing the technology and we are going to help put a process in place to make this available and then we want to partner with the right communities.

On Spark’s purpose

Our overall, overarching purpose is to unleash the potential in all New Zealanders through amazing technology. Now that’s a visionary and ambitious goal. It’s out there, it’s pretty aspirational, but it serves as a glue and a compass for the organisation. Everything we do, whether it’s in the commercial space [or not], we try to link it back to unleashing potential. In the social space it serves to let us know the things we want to do and gives us a sense of focus. We’ve supported Manaiakalani, we have Spark Jump and we support an initiative OMG Tech – who are trying to reach every primary school kid in New Zealand and give them exposure to science or technology. So we are supporting that process and not only putting forward a chunk of financial support but our people are also volunteers as well. We also own and fund Give A Little and that’s about using tech to help New Zealanders through generosity. We try to make sure a lot of what we do puts more flesh onto that bone.

On company goals

We’ve got a long-term goal and it is to be New Zealand’s most-loved brand. We know we aren’t there yet and it will take a long time to get there, but if you are talking about the concepts of brand love and getting people to love companies and love brands, you have to be more than an efficient company. You have to strike an emotional chord with your customers. And if you look at our recent campaigns there’s more of an emotional edge and it generates a warm feeling among our customers.

It’s a long-term goal and it’s all part of being where we want to be as a company. New Zealand is where we choose to do business and where our people live and work and we want to do what we can about making New Zealand a better place, and hopefully it makes customers feel better about giving us their business. The wrong way to do that is to write big cheques out left, right and centre. Instead, we are trying to leverage some technology that we have that can make a meaningful contribution to New Zealand.

On believing in the good

We believe in the goodness of people and we have seen this from our work supporting Manaiakalani over last four years. No matter what financial circumstances a family might find itself in, the vast majority of parents want the best for their kids and will do what they can within their own means to do that and with things like Spark Jump, hopefully, we can enable more to have that opportunity.

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