$5.18M From COVID Fund Will Finance Arkansas PBS Broadcast Expansion

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Arkansas PBS, the state’s educational television network, has had $5.18 million in Arkansas coronavirus relief money earmarked for it to expand its broadcast TV coverage to pockets of the state that are now out of range.

With the potential for the state’s schoolchildren to be learning from home at least part of the next school year, getting broadcast signals to the 24% of Arkansas that can’t tune in now is a growing priority. All or part of 31 of the state’s 75 counties receive a very weak signal, or none at all, the Conway-based network says.

After schools were dismissed this spring as COVID-19 cases surged, Arkansas PBS and the Arkansas Department of Education developed alternative methods of instruction, known as Arkansas AMI, to keep pre-kindergarten to eighth-grade students learning from home. The educational broadcasts hoped to fill the void for students lacking internet access, but the broadcast gap presented an additional hurdle to learning.

“The hallmark of public media is its availability to all, and the state network model has proven to be the most efficient when it comes to serving rural populations in largely rural states,” Arkansas PBS Executive Director Courtney Pledger said in a statement. “Many Arkansas families live in areas without broadband coverage, or cannot afford cable, satellite or broadband, the very families most in need of our educational programming and services.”

The $5.18 million will come from the state’s CARES Act COVID Fund, disbursed by the Arkansas CARES Act Steering Committee. “We are deeply grateful for this vital infrastructure support and eager to increase our service to Arkansas students, parents and families in this challenging time and beyond,” Pledger said.

The money will let Arkansas PBS upgrade technology to expand the footprint of its six broadcast sites and 12 microwave sites by adding four additional transmitters. The added coverage will add service in the northern valley region of Harrison and Mountain Home from the Ozark National Forest to the Missouri state line; the Arkansas River Valley through the Ouachita National Forest to the Oklahoma state line; the plains from Forrest City through to West Memphis; and the southwest corner of Arkansas, extending from Mena through Hope, to Magnolia and Texarkana. The expansion should cover nearly all Arkansas households, and the process will include identifying available broadcast spectrum, obtaining Federal Communications Commission approval and acquiring tower sites and transmitters, according to a news release.