KAKM makes leap to digital TV early, to broadcast four channels

Anchorage’s public television station, KAKM, is gearing up to quadruple its programming, bringing Anchorage fans four separate channels at once.

The change, designed to coincide with the advent of high definition television, comes as part of a federally mandated conversion of television broadcasting to digital technology.

Commercial stations nationwide must switch to digital broadcasting by May 2002, while public stations are required to convert by May 2003.

"It’s the first major change in television transmission in 50 years," said Susan Reed, president of KAKM’s owner, Alaska Public Telecommunications Inc.

Current broadcasts use analog technology, but Congress aims to free up bandwidth on the broadcast spectrum for other uses like cellular telephone service. Moreover, the conversion brings with it advantages for television.

"With the same bandwidth now used for one analog TV station, we will be able to offer four channels of programming," Reed said.

Known as multicasting, this process will provide KAKM viewers with a 24-hour-per-day children’s channel, two education channels with adult Public Broadcasting Service programs and telecourses from the University of Alaska Anchorage and the Anchorage School District as well as a business channel with continuing medical education courses and other training opportunities.

Viewers also will be able to download additional information, some interactive, on their own computers that corresponds with the televised PBS programming. This datacasting will include course materials, software, transcripts, photos and information related to topics covered in the broadcast programming.

KAKM is joining Anchorage’s other television stations in sharing a single broadcast tower for DTV, a move that will save each station at least $1 million. But it also means KAKM must complete its conversion on the commercial television timetable, Reed said.

The switchover will cost APTI an estimated $6 million, of which half will come from government and private sources. The nonprofit broadcaster hopes to raise the remaining $3 million in a capital campaign that began Feb. 4, Reed said.

In addition to space on the broadcast tower, the money will pay for a new automated programming retrieval system at KAKM that can be used to download and store nearly 3,000 hours of video programming. The system also can record and play back seven video programs simultaneously and access stored programs within one minute, paving the way for "video-on-demand" services within a couple years, Reed said.

"We expect to save $70,000 to $80,000 a year in operating costs with the new digital video disc server," she added. KAKM also will house Alaska’s only public DTV production center and share the facility with public television stations in Fairbanks, Juneau and Bethel, she said.

Northrim Bank chief executive Marc Langland and Jim Palmer, head of external affairs at BP Exploration (Alaska) Inc., will co-chair the capital campaign. Former Gov. Walter J. Hickel, his wife, Erma Lee, and Lowell and Tay Thomas will serve as honorary co-chairs, Reed said.

BP has already committed $300,000 to the campaign, and the Thomases also contributed a $300,000 gift. Reed said APTI will be seeking other large donors as well as government and foundation grants, but the ability to offer four channels of programming also will mean "lots more opportunities for program underwriters and sponsors."

The fund-raising campaign will include direct mail appeals to KAKM’s 10,000 members and to other Alaska leaders. The TV station also will conduct informational tours every weekday during the noon hour throughout the month of February and an open house Feb. 24 from 1-3 p.m. For more information, call 907-563-7070.

02/17/2001 - 8:00pm