W.Va. Public Broadcasting to Get Cash, Tech to Stay on Air

In order to free up more broadband space, the FCC has required public stations to upgrade their equipment and switch channels or to stop broadcasting altogether. A $7.36M grant is helping the transition.

by Phil Kabler, The Charleston Gazette / March 13, 2019
West Virginia Capitol Shutterstock/Nagel Photography

(TNS) — West Virginia Public Broadcasting has taken a giant step toward a major technology upgrade — and assuring that its three public television stations won’t go off the air — with a major appropriation approved by the state Legislature.

“It’s a gift that will carry West Virginia Public Broadcasting into the future,” Educational Broadcasting Authority executive director Chuck Roberts said Tuesday of the $7.36 million appropriation from surplus state Lottery funds (Senate Bill 681).

The Legislature approved the supplemental appropriation on the last day of the 60-day regular session on Saturday, and the funding bill is awaiting the governor’s signature.

That’s a major chunk of the $9.5 million WVPB needs to complete Federal Communications Commission-ordered frequency changes for the state’s three public television channels under the FCC’s spectrum repacking mandate, and to upgrade the transmitters to the next generation of high-definition digital broadcasting.

“That’s enough money to get us going with the deadlines the way they are,” Roberts said.

In order to free up more broadcast spectrum to keep up with fast-growing demand for wireless broadband, the FCC has ordered more than 1,000 television stations nationwide change their channel assignments. Stations that fail to comply by designated deadlines will no longer be allowed to broadcast.

For Public Broadcasting, that means a deadline at the end of this year to move WNPB-TV, in Morgantown, from channel 33 to 34, and the end of 2020 to move WVPB-TV Charleston from channel 34 to 20, and to move WSWP-TV Grandview/Beckley from channel 10 to 8.

Since the transmitters have to be changed out, EBA officials decided it makes sense to also upgrade to the next generation of high-definition broadcast technology, ATSC 3.0, at the same time.

Besides superior video and audio, the technology provides capacity for more video and audio subchannels, and the ability to transmit telecasts to devices with wireless internet receivers, including computers and cellphones.

A key benefit of ATSC, Roberts said, will be the ability to set up a statewide emergency services network that not only would improve the ability to alert residents of pending emergency situations, but would improve communications among first responders and law enforcement, allowing the National Guard, Homeland Security, and county emergency services providers to share communications subchannels.

“We felt like, since we have to be on the transmitters to change the channels, we ought to take the opportunity to upgrade the technology,” he said.

Roberts said the $7.36 million appropriation matches the portion of the project costs that eventually will be reimbursed by the FCC.

He said that since completion of the upgrades will stretch into the 2020-21 budget year, the hope is that the Legislature will appropriate the remaining $2.14 million to cover total costs next session.

“In our meetings with the Governor’s Office, they had talked about breaking that up over two years,” he said of the appropriations.

©2019 The Charleston Gazette (Charleston, W.Va.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.