FUNDING BRIEF: RUS DIGITAL TRANSITION GRANT PROGRAM
Funds provided through the USDA help to ensure that rural communities have continued access to local public television content after the federally mandated digital conversion that has been particularly difficult for rural communities.
Local public television stations request level funding of $2 million for this critical program in FY 2015.
- This request will help to ensure that the digital conversion does not leave rural America behind. Although 2009 marked the end of analog broadcast, rural public television stations still have infrastructure and equipment at their stations that need to be fully converted to digital to allow for the complete replication of the critical analog services they provide rural communities. These services include essential public safety services, unparalleled educational services and the highest quality public affairs programming which enhances democracy and the civic engagement of local communities. This request will help to meet those needs.
The Rural Utilities Service Public Television Digital Transition Grant Program (RUS Digital Transition Grant Program) was established in the 2002 Farm Bill to ensure that rural public television stations could meet the federal mandate to convert to digital broadcasting and continue to provide robust services to their local communities after the transition. Today, many transition needs remain. This program helps the most rural stations fund the conversion of studio and production equipment in-turn ensuring they can provide their communities with the highest quality local programming. The program also funds the conversion of translators— equipment critical to ensuring that the most rural and remote communities are served.
WHY SHOULD FEDERAL FUNDS SUPPORT THE RUS DIGITAL TRANSITION GRANT PROGRAM?
Rural public television stations often require more extensive equipment investments than their urban counterparts due to the large geographic coverage areas that often span mountainous or otherwise difficult terrain. At the same time, these stations have limited abilities to raise local funds due to sparse local populations. These factors have made the digital transition exceptionally costly for small rural stations.
Public television stations are some of the last locally-owned and operated media outlets in many rural communities, often serving as an essential source of educational, public safety, cultural, public service and healthcare information in remote areas. If stations are unable to fully transition to digital, rural communities run the risk of losing this vital source of local media and a public safety lifeline.
The RUS Digital Transition Grant Program has been criticized as unnecessary now that the digital transition is complete. That criticism is flawed because:
Although stations are now transmitting their primary signal in digital, many stations have not yet been able to fully convert all of their studio and production equipment to digital, which impairs their ability to continue to produce quality local programming and offer multicast services.
The FCC only recently finalized rules setting September 1, 2015 as the hard date for the end of all broadcasting on analog translators. With that date now firm on the horizon, rural stations will be ramping up their efforts to complete their translator conversions.
A recent survey or public television stations found that there are still at least $3 million in needed translator conversions throughout the system.
- A recent survey or public television stations found that there are still at least $3 million in needed translator conversions throughout the system.
Finally, rural stations have discovered transmission holes within their service territory due to the differences in analog and digital broadcast reach, requiring “fill in” translators. This is a cost that was not contemplated when conversion was mandated.
- Although stations are now transmitting their primary signal in digital, many stations have not yet been able to fully convert all of their studio and production equipment to digital, which impairs their ability to continue to produce quality local programming and offer multicast services.
The RUS Digital Transition Grant Program has also been characterized as duplicative of other public broadcasting infrastructure programs. However:
Currently no other federal program exists to aid public television stations with their infrastructure and digital conversion needs.
The RUS program only targets funding to the most rural stations – stations serving communities of 20,000 or less.
- In order to receive funding from this program, stations have to prove their communities are also economically disadvantaged, based on the school lunch program usage in the area.
- Currently no other federal program exists to aid public television stations with their infrastructure and digital conversion needs.
RUS DIGITAL TRANSITION GRANT PROGRAM RESULTS
Digital broadcasting in rural areas has transformed the capacity of stations to offer new digital services to their local communities, including the ability to embed encrypted data in broadcast signals to deliver high-quality educational and enhanced emergency response materials directly into homes, schools, daycare centers, emergency vehicles and other locations, regardless of broadband connectivity.
- Digital broadcasting also provides rural stations with the ability to offer several new digital multicast channels in their existing spectrum, which have the potential to expand local programming focusing on issues of importance to rural areas.
Public television calls on Congress to provide level funding of $2 million for the RUS Digital Transition Grant Program to ensure that rural communities are not left behind in the transition to digital broadcasting.