February 6, 2012 | Vol. 42 No. 6

ARCS needs TLC from community

Leigh Horner doesn’t have cable TV. If she and her family watch any television, they watch the random mix of programming on the Alaska Rural Communication Services (ARCS) channel, the free, low-power service provided to 235 communities across Alaska.

The service, formally called RATNET, was originally created decades ago by the state to provide television and a means of emergency communication to rural areas. The programming is a mix of public and commercial network and syndicated programs, Alaska news and public affairs shows and educational and informational programs.

Horner said she doesn’t mind the unpredictable nature of the programming; she just likes not paying for cable TV. Occasionally, while watching the station, Horner will notice the picture gets scratchy or the station goes out all together. She figures – often correctly – that severe weather and heavy snowfall are impeding the signal to the satellite. Eventually the channel will return or clear up, after the weather lifts or the snow is cleared from the satellite.

“I always wondered who cleaned the snow off that thing,” Horner said. “Now I know.”

That’s because Horner is herself now one of the volunteers taking up the shovel to keep the ARCS satellite clear and ready to receive a signal.

But more interest and volunteers are needed to keep the channel going.

KHNS radio station has hosted the ARCS satellite and receiving equipment in its shed off FAA Road for the past 25 years, said Kay Clements, general manager of KHNS. Recently the radio station aired a public service announcement asking for help with snow removal near the satellite when snow was piled as high as seven-feet near and around the shed and dish.

“We’re just trying to get a community group of ARCS watchers that would help carve a path to the dish,” Clements said.

While KHNS gladly hosts the equipment site, Clements said it’s getting more difficult to assist with the maintenance of the aging equipment. KHNS doesn’t receive any funding for hosting the equipment or any maintenance or replacement of the equipment.

“We’re happy to host it, it’s just the budget of replacing equipment and who is going to pay for that,” she said. “It’s sort of like this little abandoned orphan.”

According to Alaska Public Broadcasting, Inc., there is still state funding for ARCS sites - just not as much as there used to be.

“The state still has a hand in all of the functions that ARCS requires,” said Steve Hamlin, technical manager for ARCS at APRI. In years previous, there was funding for a traveling engineer, but that went away a long time ago, he said. Now, Hamlin fills the only position directly related to ARCS that the state funds. He is the coordinator and a troubleshooting resource for the 200-plus ARCS sites around the state.

While the state still provides funding for aspects like program management and the cost of the FCC license and filing, most other costs are expected to be covered by the communities hosting an ARCS station. According to an ARCS information sheet from Alaska Public Broadcasting, “Direct funding for the repair of ARCS equipment is not available from the state of Alaska at this time,” and “Communities are being asked to bear the cost of repairs to the state-owned equipment serving their communities.” The communities are also expected to provide a safe and secure space and power for electrical equipment, outside space for satellite and broadcast antennas – which is what KHNS does – and perform local maintenance and troubleshooting on a volunteer basis.

The information suggests communities can contact the state Department of Administration to request direct funding of needed repairs, contact state legislators to help secure funding, use some source of community funding or try collecting funding from local donors or grant agencies.

Clements said her biggest concern is that the equipment is going to need replacing in the near future. Recently, falling ice shredded a cable and destroyed a satellite receiver. Haines School had a used receiver they donated as a replacement part.

But it’s unclear what will happen once the equipment needs a more permanent fix. Hamlin said The Denali Commission during the last several years granted money for equipment upgrades in several communities, but that funding ended last year.

Hamlin said ARCS is a labor of love for most of the communities where it operates, relying on a core group of volunteers.

“Almost every community where this is working, there are one or two people that have taken this under their wing,” he said.

Horner said she’s happy to help out, now that she knows where the satellite is. It took her two hours to snowshoe to the satellite and shovel it the first time she went. But she’d rather pay in shovel time than in money to keep watching the station.

“This is a way I can contribute to ARCS,” she said. “It’s not always a great picture, it’s low frequency, so you get what you pay for. But the price is right.”