Maine PBS now offers four digital channels.

PORTLAND (AP) – Maine PBS has completed a federally mandated $20 million conversion to digital broadcasting, providing television viewers across the state with access to four digital channels of PBS programming.

In addition to the standard Maine PBS network line-up, the digital channels include: Maine PBS Kids, a selection of children’s shows; Maine PBS You, an educational channel; and Maine PBS Plus, which includes national PBS programs.

An estimated 40,000 Maine households now receive the new digital channels, either through digital cable service or set-top converter boxes that cost around $300 each.

Maine PBS is able to broadcast four channels of programming because digital broadcasting takes up less space on the airwaves than analog broadcasting. The federal government has mandated digital conversion for all TV stations to clear air-wave space for other technologies, including cell phones.

In the future, Maine PBS officials hope to use the digital channels to bring viewers more choices of programming, both national and local.

“Right now we have these four digital channels, but the way the technology is going, we might have eight tomorrow,” said Gil Maxwell, senior vice president and chief operations officer for Maine Public Broadcasting, which includes the five TV stations of Maine PBS. “Before digital, we were limited in the choices we could present to viewers. This really expands what we could do.”

In 1999, Maine voters approved a $9.4 million bond issue to help Maine PBS’ conversion to digital broadcasting. But since then, Maine PBS was able to save the state $1.6 million by landing a grant in that amount from the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. The agency’s grants were given to a select number of public broadcasters nationwide.

Of the $20.8 million needed for the entire project, $2 million was a state appropriation, $1.6 million was federal grant money, $7.8 million came from the state bond issue, and $9.4 million is being raised by Maine PBS.

“We had a plan to do it frugally, while other broadcasters had plans calling for tens of millions of dollars to do this,” Maxwell said. “I think we got the grants because of the approach we took.”

Maine PBS was able to cut some costs by sharing towers and equipment with other entities. One of the towers being used, for instance, is also being used by Bangor TV station WABI. Maine PBS also saved money by contracting to buy five digital antennas from Dielectric Communications in Raymond. The network got a lower price because of the group purchase.

With the completion of the conversion, Maine PBS now has digital transmission facilities in Litchfield, Dixmont, Mars Hill, Meddybemps and Sanford.

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