Alaska Rural Communication System - ARCS
Since the late 1970’s the State of Alaska (SOA) has owned and operated a network of low power television (LPTV) transmitters located in rural and bush Alaskan communities. This system is now called the Alaska Rural Communications System (ARCS). ARCS sites provide free, over-the-air, television and radio programming, including the emergency broadcast system, across much of rural Alaska. The sites receive programing via a satellite through large dishes and low power transmitters broadcast an over the air signal to the local community.
The system was constructed by the state during the 1970s and 80s and eventually consisted of over 200 sites. Programing is assembled in Anchorage and sent to a site at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, that transmits programing to a satellite the State currently contracts for the use of. This is known as the Satellite Interconnection Project or SIP. The program content is a mix of public and commercial television network and syndicated product; Alaskan produced news and public affairs including 360 North legislative coverage; and educational and informational programs from a variety of sources. Programing is not determined by the State of Alaska. A group known as the ARCS Council makes programing decisions for ARCS.
SIP transmits television and radio programing to rural ARCS sites consisting of a large dish, receiver, low power transmitter (typically 10 watts) and a small transmission tower. The transmission is one way and there is no capability to receive information from the ground sites. The transmission is open for public use and does not require any pre-authorization or payment to use.
In the past, over 200 sites may have been operational. It was the responsibility of local communities and volunteers to maintain the sites and over time many sites have stopped functioning. The State of Alaska holds 427 FCC “Low Power Television/Television Translator Broadcast Station” Licenses and Construction Permits which include 208 ARCS sites. (Some sites have more than one license and construction permit.) This includes 122 Licenses (LPA), 176 Construction Permits (LPD) and 129 Licenses (LPX).
During the mid-2000’s the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was mandated by Congress to require the conversion of television stations around the country from analog to digital transmission. Low power stations such as ARCS sites were given until July 2021 to convert from analog to digital.
Since 2013, the State Department of Administration (DOA) has received capital appropriations to upgrade ARCS rural analog television transmitters to digital. In 2013, the State contractor, Alaska Public Broadcasting Incorporated (APBI), projected that the digital upgrade project would be completed in three to four years. As many as 208 sites were once in operation and needed upgraded to digital. APBI was also contracted to provide an 800 “trouble line” regarding issues with rural television transmitters. The digital project encountered many challenges, including the bankruptcy of the company originally contracted to construct the custom rural site digital transmitters.
In 2019, APBI reported that 97 sites have had the digital upgrades “deployed.” It is unknown how many of these “deployed” sites were ever or are currently actually operational. APBI did not maintained a record of their operational status. Beginning in 2019, the DOA has expressed concern that APBI could not provide a definitive answer as to how many “deployed” digital upgrades are operational. APBI reported that there are still at least 86 communities needing deployment of the upgrades and that these remaining sites have conditions that make them more difficult to deploy and/or make operational than the ones already “deployed” to.
After more than thirty years of service, satellite dishes and antennas at many remote ARCS sites have become degraded by long exposure to extreme conditions. Many are suffering the effects of vandalism, corrosion, high wind damage, and shifting foundation from freeze/thaw. Many sites no longer have local support for housing, power and operational maintenance. These issues require digital upgrades at many of the remaining 86 sites that includes additional infrastructure repairs and operational establishment. Additionally, most of these communities are not connected to Alaska’s very limited road system and consist of fewer than 300 residents. This frequently makes co-ordination with these localities very challenging.
The State put out an open request for proposals regarding contracting for the ARCS system operations in 2020. As of January 1, 2021, Alaska Public Media (APM) is the State contractor for ARCS operations. APM began a survey of the status of all ARCS sites in January 2021. These survey efforts are continuing. The maintenance of local sites continues to remain the responsibility of the localities.