Startup Created To Build ATSC 3.0 SFNs

Public Media Group was unveiled today at the ATSC’s 2019 Next Gen TV Broadcast Conference in Washington. It comprises Public Media Venture Group, a coalition of 31 noncommercial broadcasters with 117 stations, and Cleveland-based Osborn Engineering, among others.

An SFN tower

Major public broadcasters and an established broadcast engineering firm have formed a partnership that plans to build single frequency networks in markets across the country and lease them to broadcasters implementing ATSC 3.0-based services.

The partnership, Public Media Group, was unveiled today at the ATSC’s 2019 Next Gen TV Broadcast Conference in Washington.

It comprises Public Media Venture Group (PMVG), a coalition of 31 noncommercial broadcasters with 117 stations, and Cleveland-based Osborn Engineering.

Other investors in Public Media Group, which has been set up as a public-benefit corporation, include clean-energy company BioStar Renewables and an unnamed private investment vehicle. All four hold minority stakes in the firm, according to Public Media Group CEO Joe Chinnici, who is a partner in BioStar Renewables and previously was president and COO of BioStar Infrastructure, a full-service developer for energy and data center facilities.

Other key Public Media Group hires include President Erik Langner, who formerly was president of nonprofit public TV strategic consulting firm Public Media Co. (from which PMVG was spun off in April); and SVP of RF Technology Eric Dausman, who previously was chief technology officer of Osborn Infrastructure and chief operating officer of Sutro Tower in San Francisco.

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According to Chinnici, he was approached two years ago by executives from Osborn Engineering, who were heavily involved with FCC repack work but were also fielding a lot of questions from customers about ATSC 3.0 and SFNs.

“We quickly figured out the scope was outside their historical mandate,” says Chinnici. “It’s really an asset-based development process.”

Public Media Group’s goal is to build those assets, including a nationwide network of SFNs along with the necessary supporting data centers and other infrastructure, and then lease access to stations looking to launch ATSC 3.0 services. Chinnici says that Public Media Group is “fully funded” and has access to “several billion” dollars in liquidity as well as debt financing from two global banks. He estimates that building an SFN network across the top 75 markets could eventually cost over $5 billion, but adds that would only get built based on sufficient demand.

“It’s a traditional CFO discussion, moving from capex to opex,” says Chinnici. “At the end of the day we’re leasing access to infrastructure. We do not get involved with management [of services] or revenue generation.”

Chinnici met PMVG CEO Marc Hand a year ago, and the pair quickly realized they were working toward similar goals, leading to PMVG’s involvement in forming the new company. Public Media Group’s initial customers will, in fact, be the public broadcasters belonging to PMVG, which include major noncommercial stations such at WNET New York, WGBH Boston and KCET Los Angeles as well as a number of state networks and college-affiliated stations like Iowa Public Television and Utah Education Network.

But public benefit corporations are designed to pursue profits as well as the public good, and the new company’s mandate is to also seek ATSC 3.0 business from major commercial broadcasters such as Sinclair Broadcast Group, with which Chinnici says he is currently in discussions.

“[PMVG] brings a core group of public stations, and we have a rapidly developing commercial client list as well,” Chinnici adds.

FCC rules require public broadcasters to devote a “substantial majority” of their spectrum to education purposes, notes Hand, and the PMVG stations certainly aim to use 3.0 to provide new educational services as well as interactive content and advanced emergency alerts. But they also will look to use the minority portion of their spectrum to pursue new business opportunities with 3.0.

“There’s a distinction between public stations and companies like Sinclair,” says Hand. “But from a public TV perspective we see an aligned interest with ATSC 3.0 — in new revenues, new businesses and a new mission focus.”

What kind of SFNs Public Media Group may build in individual markets will be dictated by the business needs of its customers, and every market is different, says Chinnici. But in general, for most large markets the company is assuming an SFN will be a large ATSC 3.0 tower and transmitter supplemented by six or seven additional transmitter sites. Public Media Group is already building such an SFN in San Francisco to improve coverage there for 3.0.

Chinnici says he should be able to provide details on additional markets and customers in the next three to six months. He sees the overall buildout occurring in three phases: first building out the primary 3.0 tower and SFN sites; then the data centers and broadcast centers; and third, redundant power systems for the networks.

“We’re in extensive negotiations with seven different commercial broadcast groups, and we’ve been working with them for well over a year,” Chinnici says.

Speaking at the ATSC Next-Gen Conference this afternoon in a panel about launching ATSC 3.0 services in a market, representatives from Spectrum Co. and Pearl TV said that a leased-access approach to SFNs could make sense going forward though they didn’t have agreements in place with any such entity. Both Spectrum Co. COO Sasha Javid and Pearl TV CTO Dave Folsom said they expected tower companies to make similar plays.
“I think it has a particular application for SFNs,” says Folsom. “You can have a common antenna, and the stations can bring their own transmitters to it. So they’ll make the investment; all of the tower owners will do that.”

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