Alaska Public Media will begin operating ARCS on Friday, but digital conversion is currently on hiatus

Alaska Public Media will begin operating ARCS on Friday which is said to be a vital service for...
Alaska Public Media will begin operating ARCS on Friday which is said to be a vital service for much of rural Alaska.(KTUU)
Published: Dec. 29, 2020 at 7:46 PM AKST
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JUNEAU, Alaska (KTUU) - Alaska Public Media will begin operating the Alaska Rural Communications Service on Jan. 1.

The Department of Administration did not renew a contract with Alaska Public Broadcasting, Inc. which has operated ARCS for over 20 years. The department put out a request for new operators to bid for the contract in September.

Ed Ulman, the president and CEO of Alaska Public Media, said the Anchorage-based news outlet was the only one that put in a bid.

There are three parts of that contract and Alaska Public Media has currently been approved to operate two of them: managing the infrastructure to send television and radio signals to over 180 communities and running a phone line to troubleshoot technical problems from across rural Alaska.

The contract for running those two operations is for one year and worth around $100,000, Ulman said. The state could extend the contract for up to four years.

The Department of Administration would not confirm that Alaska Public Media had won the contract, saying that it was still being finalized. Commissioner Kelly Tshibaka did not respond to requests for an interview.

While the Dunleavy administration has cut state funding for public media and the Alaska Broadcasting Commission, funding does remain for ARCS.

Kelly Hanke, a spokesperson for the department, said by email that ARCS “provides an important informational and messaging medium for many of Alaska’s most remote communities.”

The new ARCS partner is hoped to provide “fresh ideas, potential new technology and improve service solutions” for the state of Alaska, Hanke added.

For consumers of content on ARCS, the change of operator should not make much difference, Ulman said. If communities currently receive a signal, that will continue.

Alaska Public Media will work with the ARCS Council on programming which includes newscasts from Alaska’s News Source.

“There should be no change at all,” Ulman said. “In fact, what we’re hoping to do over time is improve the way we distribute content and potentially add additional channels.”

Alaska Public Media will also be ready to manage the troubleshooting phone line on New Year’s Day, he added.

A third part of the contract is more tricky, it involves ensuring remote Alaska communities are able to receive a digital television signal before a federally mandated deadline of July 31. The state is seeking to extend that deadline which will see the analog television signal switched off and service stop.

Alaska Public Media has currently not received state approval to manage the upgrade process which has been on hiatus for over a year. Ulman said he didn’t know the status of that part of the contract and the Department of Administration did not respond to a request for comment before deadline.

Tshibaka addressed a House State Affairs Committee meeting in February to discuss ARCS. “At this time, it’s not known how many of the 185 communities have operational, updated digital ARCS systems,” she said.

Mollie Kabler, the executive director of APBI, said by phone on Tuesday that the organization knows exactly which communities have received the digital receivers. The issue is installation.

The Alaska Legislature appropriated $5.3 million in 2013 to ensure that 185 communities could receive digital television and radio signals. Easier to reach communities have been upgraded, but dozens of others have not.

Kabler said that state funding allowed for digital receivers to be purchased and sent out to communities, but there was no funding provided to finish the job. “It’s incumbent on the community to accept the receiver and find the funds to have it installed,” she added.

That has left a lot of uncertainty. An amendment to the Department of Administration’s ARCS contract states that there could be fewer than 50 communities that need the upgrade. No one knows for sure.

ARCS provides television and radio for dozens of communities that have often no other options. It also sends out emergency alerts from the state and the president which is mandated by the Federal Communications Commission.

Kabler said no one knew if some of those yet-to-be-upgraded remote communities are still receiving analog signals or emergency alerts. “We don’t know the status of them, many of them are probably not operational,” she said.

Alaska Public Media is set to send crews out in the next couple of months to learn more.

“We will do site surveys and find out what’s happening out there and really where are there communities that once had the analog ARCS system but never got upgraded to digital for whatever reason,” Ulman said.

The contract includes a provision that allows Alaska Public Media to charge remote communities for repairs to ARCS infrastructure.

New Year’s Eve marks the end of APBI’s involvement with ARCS. Kabler said she’s received no information about the transition.

On Dec. 23, APBI sent a farewell message to Alaska public radio stations and to television stations, including Alaska’s News Source. APBI will now focus on helping with engineering issues for 26 public radio stations and assisting with programming.

“We want you to know that we are proud of our service to your station, to Alaskans and our collaboration with many, many volunteers in communities across the state,” the email reads. “Moving forward, all of us at APBI are excited to continue our work with you, our public media colleagues. We wish you a happy and safe holiday season and all the best in the new year.”

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