PennREN Fiber Network Helps Tackle PBS Funding Challenges

By Heather Herzog,
IT Communications
Penn State University

Greg Petersen is getting creative.

As director of broadcasting for Penn State's public broadcasting stations WPSU TV and radio, Petersen has seen millions in funding cuts to public media stations across the nation — with states like Pennsylvania, Florida, New Hampshire and New Jersey totally eliminating their appropriations for public broadcasting — and other states slashing their public media budgets to pennies on the dollar. Consequently, public broadcasting managers like Petersen have had to trim their program offerings down to a small percentage of what was offered 10 years ago. Even more frustrating, a digital network used for program exchange and simulcasts was shut down as part of the cutbacks, so sharing quality programs in real time is often no longer possible for many Pennsylvania PBS stations.

But Petersen and the team at WPSU have been hammering out a solution. Recently, WPSU and Erie’s public television station, WQLN, have been partnering with the Keystone Initiative for Network Based Education and Research (KINBER) and Velocity Network to use Pennsylvania's next generation research and education network (PennREN) to share their programming — and the collaboration has been breathing new life into state PBS offerings, through the power of super-fast, fiber-optic cable.

Using PennREN collaboratively for the public broadcast market has amazing potential in the long run, says Petersen: "Over the fall, we’ve been successfully transmitting broadcasts of two well known WPSU shows to Erie — 'Weather World' and 'Conversations LIVE' — in real time and without a hitch. Then, this January, we premiered the 2nd season of 'After Abbey,' a show that recaps each new episode of the popular television series 'Downton Abbey.'"

According to the show's producers, the 'After Abbey' simulcast enabled fans from WPSU and WQLN listening areas to interactively participate in a conversation with WPSU producers and guest experts through the power of PennREN's broadband network technology. Fans were highly energized during the broadcast, with numerous calls coming in from State College, Erie — and even Ontario, Canada.

Similarly, during a broadcast of “Conversations LIVE” to WQLN, host Patty Satalia and University experts discussed gardening essentials, fielding live calls from Erie and central Pennsylvania viewers for the first time, without delay. In addition, the live airing of WPSU’s popular meteorology show “Weather World” has been transmitted daily to WQLN, conveying in-depth, scientific analysis of weather patterns and climate studies in simulcast to nearly 450,000 combined WQLN and WPSU households.

Petersen explains when many Pennsylvania stations lost their Pennsylvania Public Television Network (PPTN) funding during the past few years, they had to resort to sharing their programs by physically shipping copies to one another in the form of flash drives or video tapes.

“So the importance of what PennREN offers right now is instant, collaborative and economically feasible program-sharing opportunities, that we haven’t had in years,” he stresses. “And the possibilities are limitless — for example, each station could become a repository of a specialized type of educational programming, and broadcast live to multiple stations throughout the state.”

Completed in 2013, PennREN was constructed with funds from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to help bring affordable broadband connections to non-profit community institutions in many underserved areas. The network encompasses more than 1,600 miles of fiber across the state. PennREN is managed by KINBER, which is comprised of member organizations from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia — including major hubs like the University of Pittsburgh, the Pennsylvania State University, and the University of Pennsylvania — along with institutions, colleges, libraries, hospitals and healthcare organizations spanning the commonwealth.

According to Bruce M. Taggart, Ph.D., chair of the KINBER Board of Directors and vice provost for library and technology services at Lehigh University, the recent WPSU-WQLN broadcast transmissions are the first time PennREN has been able to link organizations that weren't directly positioned on its own network.

“With the many opportunities available, it’s impossible to know the full extent of what will come out of PennREN and its potential, but it’s already opening up connections and communications that otherwise would not have existed,” he said. “Because of the commonality of PennREN, we are now envisioning how higher education, public media, K-12, libraries, economic development and healthcare can work together and it is unlocking the doors for collaboration in Pennsylvania.”

As for Petersen, he has an eye on the future. The idea of merging television broadcast technologies and second generation Internet has become a reality and he believes it will have the power to deliver enormous rewards for PBS.

“Discovery tends to happen when challenge and need drives innovation,” he said. “There may be some growing pains, but this really isn’t brain surgery — it’s just making good television.”


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