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Help keep OPBs stations on throughout rural areas of state

Imagine tuning into Oregon Public Broadcasting one day and finding nothing but dead air. No Preschool with Miss Lori. No news from Jim Lehrer. No views of our wondrous state from Oregon Field Guide.

It seems incredible, but if you live outside one of Oregon's major urban areas in, say, Pendleton or The Dalles, or any number of smaller towns, the day when you lose access to one of the finest public television services in the country may be less than two years away.

What's more, everyone in Oregon could lose out on a new life-saving, security enhancing service that may prove even more vital to our state than quality television.

Here's how: The federal government has ordered that on February 17, 2009, all analog television transmitters (the kind that have been used since the dawn of television in the 1950s) must be shut down. It's a federal mandate designed to bring the nation's broadcasters into a powerful new digital world.

Thanks to some forward-looking Oregon legislators and a special $7 million capital appropriation from the state in 2001, OPB's main transmitters in Portland, Bend, Corvallis, Eugene and La Grande are already capable of meeting the new digital standard. No problem.

But outside those five cities, viewers are served by a vast network of smaller relay station - or 'translators.' They feed OPB's signal over the mountains and into the valleys of rural Oregon. The federal mandate now says these translators must be converted to digital signals, too.

That puts most of eastern and central Oregon and almost the entire Oregon coast in the dark two years from now unless the translators are upgraded to digital.

OPB estimates the cost of the upgrade to be $5.5 million, with the federal government picking up half the tab. Gov. Kulongoski has included $2.75 million in one-time capital funding and a $1 million operating appropriation for OPB in his CHAMP (culture, history, arts, movies, and preservation) budget initiative that is now before the Legislature. State Sen. Betsy Johnson and other lawmakers are providing leadership in this effort to restore funding for Oregon's cultural landscape, which was hard hit when state revenues took a nosedive five years ago.

The CHAMP initiative will preserve historic treasures at the Oregon Historical Society, stabilize the funding of arts organizations through Oregon Arts Commission, boost efforts to attract moviemakers to our scenic landscapes and preserve the unique culture of small town main streets. It will also ensure OPB's continued service to rural Oregon, and so much more.

And here's why: Digital translators could be the backbone of a tsunami warning system delivering messages and evacuation instructions directly to televisions, radios, computers, cell phones, and other handhelds along the coast. The upgraded relays could flash real time images to firefighters in the Blues or the Wallows. Medical data could be beamed to rural health care professionals. With the new digital technology, the sky is quite literally the limit.

It's called 'datacasting.' It's the ability to split a digital signal to perform more than one job at a time. So one translator could simultaneously beam both Barney to television sets and an AMBER Alert to police and motorists along I-5.

It's already being done elsewhere in America. New Jersey public broadcasters offer the service to emergency managers at the Oyster Creek nuclear power plant in that state. In Kentucky, public broadcasters send emergency storm alerts, criminal profiles, and other time sensitive data to officials around the state.

Unlike the translators now in service, the digital network could offer wireless communications at lightning speed and with great reliability from Durkee to Depoe Bay.

But the high cost of operating in areas of low population density makes it impossible for OPB to complete the upgrade without state support. Fortunately, Gov. Kulongoski, Sen. Johnson and others in the Legislature recognize the big benefits of this relatively small investment in the new technology can deliver. The Legislature will be considering the CHAMP package in the weeks ahead. It offers incredible value for money.

I hope Oregonians will join me in respectfully imploring our legislators in Salem to not let public broadcasting go dark anywhere in Oregon come February of 2009. Help OPB keep Oregon connected.

Doug Tunnell, Dundee, is chairman of the board of Oregon Public Broadcasting. He has held the position for past 18 months. Today he operates Brick House Vineyards in Newburg. He has a background in commercial broadcasting, having worked as a reporter and foreign correspondent for CBS News for 18 years. He also served as a correspondent for West Linn High School back in 1965 for the Lake Oswego Review.