PRSS begins assessing needs for next technology upgrade

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Two years after the Public Radio Satellite System finished rolling out its latest generation of receivers to hundreds of member stations nationwide, its leaders are beginning to evaluate what the next iteration of public radio interconnection will look like.

PRSS issued a request for proposals April 10, seeking to engage a consultant who will survey stations about their technical needs and capabilities.

“We’re in fine shape right now,” said Mike Beach, VP for distribution for NPR, who oversees PRSS. “It’s still relatively early in the life of the system we bought. We have a good supply of receivers.” Beach discussed the RFP process and the tentative timeline during an April 14 presentation at the Association of Public Radio Engineers conference in Las Vegas. 

That satellite system, based largely on receivers supplied by vendor ATX, is working well; Beach believes that makes now the perfect time to start thinking about what’s next.

“Almost all equipment has a limitation, and it’s called the chipset,” Beach told Current during an interview at the PRSS booth at the NAB Show in Las Vegas. “If you want to keep adding features and shifting things over time, you inevitably have to make either a physical change, or you go to something that’s more software-centric.” 


Whether the next step for PRSS will involve retaining the existing ATX infrastructure or making a hardware change, funding cycles are another pressure point, Beach said. PRSS’ current distribution contract with CPB, which oversees federal appropriations for public media interconnection, runs out Sept. 30, 2024, the end of that fiscal year.

PRSS needs to think ahead to “what would we be looking at beyond that, which would be fiscal year 2025 and beyond,” Beach said. “Are we staying the course? Are we growing what we’re already doing? Should we make some shifts somewhere?” 

“I would say that we’d end up with something that has some combination of incumbency and new, but we don’t want to make that assumption until we go through this process,” he said.

‘We have to think about everyone’

One goal of the RFP process will be to assess the current state of connectivity at the hundreds of locations to which PRSS delivers programming. Since the late 1970s, when NPR pioneered satellite delivery of radio networks, public radio has looked to the sky as its primary mode of connectivity. 

The ATX system now in use has added internet connectivity under the hood. PRSS continues to assess costs and benefits of that as it moves forward, Beach said.

“We have this mandate to get to all public radio stations, not just NPR stations, and not just to those that have good connectivity,” he said. “We have to think about everyone everywhere.” The public radio network includes a lot of stations that serve small communities and rural populations, “places where connectivity is not easy to come by, terrestrial or otherwise,” Beach said. 

Satellite distribution has been the easy answer for a long time. “You send it out once, and you get it to everywhere,” Beach said. But options have grown, and PRSS uses a mix of them. “We use satellite, but we also use private terrestrial networks and commodity internet, and we outsource some stuff,” Beach said. “What we’re trying to decide with this process is, do we have the right balance in each of those areas? Is there traffic that could be moved off of satellite and be more efficient on the ground?” 

Before PRSS can answer those questions, it will look to the yet-to-be-hired contractor to help identify what types of connectivity exist at each of its member stations. That research will help determine where broadband is widely available and cheap enough to supplement and replace satellite connectivity. PRSS will also learn where it remains unavailable or prohibitively expensive, making the continued use of a satellite transponder a necessity.

Partnering with PBS’ sIX interconnect

Because CPB’s funding for public broadcasting interconnection — currently at $60 million annually — is split between public TV and radio, the corporation has long sought to find some synergies between the two systems.

That remains easier said than done, even where it might look like a simple process, Beach said. The current contract between CPB and PRSS includes a “proof of concept” to deliver PRSS content over PBS’ sIX interconnection system. The project started by looking at all of the joint licensees in the system, Beach said.

Among those more than 70 licensees, some maintain completely separate locations for their TV and radio stations, according to Beach. The growing use of joint master control services by PBS stations turned out to be an even bigger obstacle. When public TV stations outsourced their master control to operators in Syracuse, N.Y., or Boston, the co-located public radio stations continued to rely on local PRSS delivery.

That left a smaller universe of about 38 licensees with local master controls. PRSS has experimented with delivering its content over sIX to those radio stations. In each location, PBS provides a 15 Mbps connection over its network, which is then delivered to a PRSS receiver over a PBS-provided router in the sIX equipment rack, Beach said. 

PRSS is now working with those stations to take the sIX-delivered signal fully live, including redundant delivery from PRSS to PBS via the PRSS backup network operations center in St. Paul, Minn. Eight joint licensees have already taken the sIX-delivered PRSS signal to air as a test, with more going live in the months to come. 

“Then … we can do some testing about which ones are going to use it as a primary, which as a backup, and how they perform,” Beach said. “But it’s still just 38 stations out of many hundreds.”

Tight schedule for prospective vendors

PRSS is hoping to move quickly through the next few steps. Prospective vendors must submit questions about the RFP by Monday, and PRSS plans to respond to answer them by May 8. The deadline for submitting final proposals is May 22.

A committee of 19 station managers will join PRSS management to help score the proposals. If several viable competing bids remain, vendors may be invited to make presentations ahead of a July 5 deadline for selecting the winning proposal, Beach said.

“What we don’t know — and this is the part that makes it difficult for us to tell when it’s going to be over —  is … how long [the chosen vendor’s] process will take,” Beach said.  

“We can guess that it’s probably going to be in the two- to three-month window, but we don’t know that until we pick the winner. … Either way, we’re thinking we’re going to get down to the deliverables from them in late fall,” he said.

After that, likely in early 2024, PRSS will begin a new RFP process to select a vendor for its next interconnection contract, Beach said. 

“The end point would be a technical plan and a price tag and a schedule of some kind that we would take back to CPB and say, ‘For 2025 and beyond, here’s our plan,’” he said.

This summer and early fall will be the time for local stations and program producers to be ready to provide input, Beach said. By then, the consultant will be reaching out to PRSS stakeholders to find out about their connectivity status and their needs from the next interconnection system.

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