Blistering report on ARCS conversion upsets Democrats on House committee

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Kelly Tshibaka

DIGITAL CONVERSION PROJECT AFTER 6 YEARS IS HALF BAKED?

Commissioner of Administration Kelly Tshibaka says state has given more than $4.6 million to Alaska Public Broadcasting Inc. over six years to convert rural public broadcasting stations from analog to digital so they will be in compliance with federal law. But despite her department’s efforts, she can’t find out how many are actually converted.

Of the 76 to 115 sites APBI said it “converted” or “deployed” (mailed) conversion equipment to, APBI has no record of which sites are actually transmitting digital signal as of November, 2019, when APBI did not have its contract renewed with the state.

“There is no accurate record of which communities actually have equipment installed,” Tshibaka said. She said her department has anecdotal information that shows that equipment was sent to some communities, but either wasn’t installed or wasn’t maintained by APBI.

For years, Tshibaka said, the State believed that a list of sites labeled as “deployed” or “converted” by APBI means those communities are successfully transmitting digital signal and receiving public media over those digital communications system, but there is no way to knowing if that is accurate because APBI and Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission have been unresponsive.

Tshibaka said that the Alaska Public Broadcasting Commission itself had not met since last June, even though her department is willing and able to provide administrative support to help the commission, so it can fulfill its statutory duty of applying for grants.

It appears that more than 100 of the stations in rural Alaska remain to be converted to digital. But in her presentation, Tshibaka had put a big question mark in that spot, because the information her department has assembled in its investigation has come up against a commission and a public-private corporation that has been resistant to being transparent.

Democrats in the committee room were appalled at the presentation.

Reps. Zack Fields and Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins said it proved the Dunleavy Administration is hostile to public broadcasting, and Kreiss-Tomkins abruptly left the room to call APBI Executive Director Mollie Kabler to get some points for a rebuttal.

When he returned, he said that the commission and the corporation had a bad relationship with the Dunleavy Administration, and that he wanted to put a stop to the presentation about the performance of the publicly funded entity.

“It feels so unconstructive to have such an antagonistic attitude. It feels as though bad faith or incompetence is being ascribed to the corporation or commission. It’s unfortunate we’re going down this rabbit hole. I suspect a lot of this will be refuted and I suggest we stop doing it,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.

Mollie Kabler, the executive director of APBI, had made a presentation earlier in the week asking the committee to give her corporation more funds. She lives in Kreiss-Tomkins’ district and has been in charge of the contract for its entirety. Kreiss-Tomkins was defending a friend, laying the blame for APBI’s failure on the Dunleavy Administration.

Rep. Zack Fields criticized Tshibaka for her pronunciation of Kwigillingok, saying it was little wonder their equipment wasn’t working since the commissioner of Administration was not pronouncing their community’s name correctly.

“If you can’t pronounce it you can’t maintain it,” he said.

Update: Must Read Alaska has verified that Tshibaka pronounced Kwigillingok correctly.

Fields, earlier this week, had pounded the Dunleavy Administration for an $8,000 a month sole source contract that the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority has with Clark Penney.

But during the hearing today, he did not mention any problems with the sole-source contract that the state has had with APBI to convert all the rural communities to digital signals.

In fact, it’s not Tshibaka’s responsibility to install and maintain the equipment; it’s APBI’s contract to perform the work. But the Democrats were shocked that the presentation had information they didn’t want to hear about public broadcasting grants.

Tshibaka’s presentation showed an email exchange between APBI’s technical manager and the tribal leader of Kwig from November, 2019:

Technical Manager, APBI: “I understand the ARCS DTV system in Kwigillingok is still not operating….We have not been able to schedule a technician to come out there over the past several months as we had hoped, due to scheduling and availability issues. … we may be able to send areplacement part, however that would require someone in Kwig to remove the suspect part, packand ship it to us, and take the replacement to the site and install the equipment per our directions.”

Kwigillingok’s Tribal Leader Response: “…we have been promised the technician will be scheduled togo on site visit to make some technical assessments, this is getting exhausting of having to listen todelays! WHO DOES THIS!”

Larson Bay equipment from APBI remains on a shelf since it was sent to the village in 2015.

FACTS, NOT FEELINGS

Tshibaka’s presentation showed the difficulty in getting either APBI or its commission APBC to be responsive with information about how it had spent the $4.6 million that was to be used to convert all the 185 rural stations over the pst six years.

Efforts to call each community, using the list of point-of-contacts provided by APBI, resulted in “most of the listed contact numbers were not functional,” Tshibaka said. That indicates that APBI itself had not contacted the communities to monitor the status of their equipment, one could infer from Tshibaka’s statement.

“At this time it is unknown how many of the 185 communities have operational updated digital ARCS systems,” Tshibaka said. “APBI has reported 115 sites out of the 185 sites have been deployed, but it also provided a spreadsheet to DOA of a status of the 185 communities and it shows that 97 sites have been deployed, in contrast to the 115 sites APBI claims.

APBI provided another list to DOA of 98 sites that had been deployed and another list of 77 sites that had been converted, she said.

Deployed means the equipment was sent to the community, while converted means it was successfully installed and is operational.

Dillingham has the equipment deployed, Tshibaka said, but it lacks funds for the electricity to run it so it’s not installed and “converted.”

Larson Bay has the equipment, but no one qualified to install it.

Tshibaka said installing it and getting it operational is APBI’s responsibility — but it appears APBI washed its hands of the problem after mailing the conversion box to the village.

APBI is funded by the state to operate a hotline to help communities troubleshoot problems when their equipment doesn’t work.

The contract with APBI was several contracts, she said, to provide management fees, installation labor, equipment and management of the hotline. Of the $4.6 million, $1.671 is going to the management fee, with $2.96 going to equipment, or “wireless acquisition.”

Committee Chairwoman Rep. Jennifer Johnston said it is evident that time has moved on from Downton Abbey, and public broadcasting is an aging service. “It’s time to modernize,” she suggested, adding that this is a chance to take a look at the whole “old approach” system and “energize” it.

27 COMMENTS

  1. It’s time to pull the pacifier from the mouth on Public Radio and let them seek funding on their own. It’s not the responsibility of the State Government to fund PBS

  2. Have we just located the center of the “resist” movement? It’s Public Broadcasting? Who would have guessed?

    • In this day and age, why are we funding this at all? The organization is hostile to the prevailing political Philosophy in this state, and to the private sector in general, so why should those groups be forced to support this one?

  3. I know how some Native Councils work, being a computer repair technician in the Interior. This is NOT a dig at them, its just understanding how they (NCs) work. When given instructions on how to deal with technology and unless they have someone in the village that has hands-on experience with the equipment, they’ll shy away from it like a hot potato. For two very apparent reasons: 1.) Liability and 2.) Responsibility. Period. The Native Councils are far more interested in day to day operations of their village. They need to keep track of elders who are in need of warmth, food, and shelter. The village council can’t be bothered about technology of which some or all, don’t completely understand.
    And I can guarantee that most villages aren’t watching PBS anyways.

    • I’ll second the above statement. Few villagers are watching PBS. Internet and Phone data are the source of information. Folks who have an income often have a dish for TV and some villages also have cable.
      Truthfully, PBS should be shelved and the money go to better internet.

    • Get a couple of technicians with bush experience and send them to each site to install and check out. After the first couple of jobs they will know what kind of parts and tools to bring. It’s not that hard lots of us have installed and retrofitted analog to digital equipment in the bush. I’ll take the contract.

    • I bet he could find a company that would do the job it was paid to do, or at least answer the phone or respond to an email from the folks paying the bills…seems like that would be a good start.

  4. A born and raised Alaskan having her pronunciation criticized by an East Coaster who’s lived here less than ten years. Take your misdirection and go home, Fields.

  5. A former state employee with direct knowledge told me that ARCS inundated a state director with demands for immediate financial support and urged the director to sign off on a site lease or “people will be without critical communications.”

    The director knew some folks in the community and asked one to send a cell phone photo of the site.

    The photo showed a decrepit building with no windows, door or equipment inside, and bare wires hanging from the catawampus tower. Hadn’t been in use for several years.

    The director sent the photos to the ARCS person and predictably heard nothing after.

    The fact is – ARCS is an anachronism, given the many alternatives available and preferred by 95% of rural residents. If a storm is coming or Armageddon is imminent, the 95% will somehow get the news to the other 5%.

    • I can only speak for my own village, but ARCS is the only viable affordable tv we can get. We have no cell phone service and internet is 15 year old Hughesnet gen2. Get over your city prejudice and learn what really goes on in villages. Communications infrastructure is vital to the villages. BTW, I installed the digital converter box for our ARCS receiver. It is very simple to do, swapping out receivers.

  6. Alaska Public Broadcasting Inc. = mouthpiece for the Democratic National Committee and Alaska Democrat Party and all their tightly-related groups (NEA Alaska for one)

    Why is the State of Alaska giving any money at all to this organization? Mollie says she needs more money, but there is no transparency, no accountability. Forget it. Let the Democrats hold fundraisers for their radio stations.

  7. Can we please add the Kenai Peninsula Borough (KPB) to APB’s list of non transmitting digital public television broadcasts?

    Alaska Public Broadcasting and its sister stations (KAKM HD, Create, KAKM7.3, 24/7_HD) have been off the air on the Kenai Peninsula for over a month.

    I understand that KPB is a red borough, but my tax dollars are subsidizing this money swallowing unaccountable venture for zero return.

  8. Leave it to State employees without real time oversight accountability to screw up a project of this magnitude. Accountability through phase implementation that is specific, measurable, achievable and reproducible in concert with dual signature confirmation is clearly missing here. It is either theft or incompetence. At the very least, an audit of where these monies have gone. Put me on it and I will get the damn answers. Enough is enough… we are tired if this bullcrap in Alaska. Alaskans deserve better…… a lot better.

  9. Leave it to State employees without real time oversight accountability to screw up a project of this magnitude. Accountability through phase implementation that is specific, measurable, achievable and reproducible in concert with dual signature confirmation is clearly missing here. It is either theft or incompetence. At the very least, an audit of where these monies have gone. Put me on it and I will get the damn answers. Enough is enough… we are tired if this bullcrap in Alaska. Alaskans deserve better…… a lot better. Note to Fields and Tompkins… cut the bullcrap and earn your money by getting answers. Stop the political woofing and find the fraud.

  10. “It feels as though bad faith or incompetence is being ascribed to the corporation or commission. It’s unfortunate we’re going down this rabbit hole. I suspect a lot of this will be refuted and I suggest we stop doing it,” Kreiss-Tomkins said.”

    No, Kreiss-Tompkins, both bad faith AND incompetence are being ascribed. And also to the Dems who are knee-jerk defending them. Pull the plug on Public Broadcasting, it serves no purpose.

  11. At least some of the above comments show someone is thinking. The knee-jerk reactions of the leftist congress are truly deplorable – Kelly Tshibaka is doing a great job of trying to root out waste and fraud in the State government – a massive task – and is being met by massive resistance from the swamp. Accountability is a must. As the volunteer responsible for maintaining my village’s ARCS system for nearly 30 years – even though I don’t watch it… I can attest that DTV works here. Our village has to pay for replacement parts. The broadcast stations in Anchorage that get their programming on ARCS demand some sort of income from it – and there are a few employees at ARCS. My village is not receiving any funding from ACPB – we pay for the power to drive it too. That wonderful weather program that airs at 5:30PM is partly funded by ACPB – and is a very necessary part of communication to the bush.

  12. It is actually time to stop spending millions in communities that are never held accountable for the expenditure.

  13. Public broadcasting in Alaska is just corporate Fake News and propaganda. Just take a look at NPR’s corporate sponsors. Defunding public media in Alaska should be low hanging fruit for budget cutters.

  14. What we have here is a failure to communicate. Before any money changed hands, the state should have required a Statement of Work and a Scope document including definitions and conditions of payment. This is a great training tool for anyone wishing to be a project manager.

    I would venture to say that this issue is not only an Public Broadcasting – State of Alaska problem, but indicative of many projects the municipalities and state government are involved.

    You don’t have to go far to see the trend. We all know what is happening with the Anchorage SAP software fiasco.

  15. There hasn’t been any arcs in Quinhagak in probably the last twenty years. Which is fine by me as I have no desire to have ” The View” shoveled down the kids throats at 9:30 in the morning.

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