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Emergency infrastructure needed to keep Americans safe: Public media

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When wildfires, floods, ice storms, tornados, hurricanes, earthquakes and other disasters threaten American communities, public radio and television stations are lifelines for affected residents. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, local stations across the United States embraced this role — keeping people safe as they provided uninterrupted, real-time local news and information during quarantines, notified citizens with public health alerts, supported families and teachers by reaching students who lacked broadband access, helping uplift the nation’s morale, and so much more.

Free, over-the-air public radio and television broadcast signals reach 99 percent of the U.S. population, connecting and serving communities, including rural and underserved populations and helping to bridge the digital divide. For some Americans, public radio or television may be the sole local broadcast service available. Public media stations are the last locally operated, locally controlled media focused on addressing community needs, and committed to informing, educating and protecting every American.

Public media’s local news, educational and cultural programming is made available by the towers, transmitters, antennae, servers, generators and other infrastructure that ensure public radio and television stations reach all 50 states and U.S. territories. This infrastructure also guarantees delivery of presidential and other lifesaving alerts fed directly through the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the event of a crisis. Public media is there for us when we need it, in ways many don’t realize. Ensuring the reliability and modernization of this infrastructure, particularly given the rising threats to cybersecurity, is not only advisable but essential.

While the contributions of public media are greater now than ever, a backlog of urgent infrastructure and equipment replacement needs jeopardizes public media’s ability to fulfill its public service mission. The majority of public broadcasting infrastructure was deployed and maintained over the last 50 years by the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications Information Administration (NTIA) under a program that was last funded in fiscal year 2010 — leaving stations to absorb these capital expenditures or defer equipment replacements. 

Station managers across the country have reported that they are operating decades-old equipment on the brink of failure. In many cases, stations can’t even properly repair equipment because spare parts are not available. A recent assessment by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting found more than 60,000 pieces of public media station equipment requiring updates or replacement. The reliability of public safety alerts, delivery of public broadcasting’s programming and digital operations, and education services that have been especially critical during COVID-19 are all at risk when antennas, transmitters, backup generators and studio equipment begin to fail.

In addition, public media stations, like many other organizations, need to continually evolve cybersecurity best practices to ensure they can provide vital services to the American public regardless of network threats. In the case of the PBS Warning Alert and Response Network, the role of public television is to ensure delivery of lifesaving alerts, even in the event that a cybersecurity breach compromises the primary system. 

But there is an opportunity to fortify local public media station infrastructure to ensure it is ready to respond to the next emergency.

As Congress prepares its annual funding bills and finalizes bipartisan legislation for investing in America’s infrastructure, lawmakers need to know that public media is as vital to our democracy as the roads, bridges and tunnels that connect us. The routes necessary to get us to safety during an emergency are not effective without real-time communication of alerts, critical news and information about where to go and how to get there. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting has requested new funding for equipment, infrastructure and cybersecurity needs for public media stations — an initiative that would benefit every local community in the country.

The loss of public media’s local services would be devastating for communities large and small that rely on them. Let’s work together to safeguard this public service mission. 

Congress should rebuild public media’s infrastructure so that public media stations across the country can continue to keep citizens connected, informed, and inspired — and safe.

Craig Fugate was the FEMA administrator under President Barack Obama and the head of Florida’s Emergency Management Agency under Gov. Jeb Bush. He currently serves on the board of America’s Public Television Stations. 

Tags Barack Obama Craig Fugate Emergency Preparedness extreme weather FEMA Flood heatwave hurricane Natural disaster Wildfire

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