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Feds start wait list for DTV converter box coupons

Tue, 01/06/2009 - 7:35am
Joelle Tessler, AP Technology Writer

WASHINGTON (AP) – Consumers who apply for federal coupons to pay for converter boxes ahead of next month's transition to digital television broadcasts are being placed on a waiting list and may not receive their vouchers before the switchover, the Commerce Department said Monday.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the arm of the Commerce Department administering the coupon program, created the waiting list on Sunday after hitting a $1.34 billion funding limit set by Congress.

The agency will send out coupons to those on the list only as unredeemed coupons currently in circulation expire, freeing up more money for the program. The waiting list already has requests for 103,000 coupons.

And Meredith Attwell Baker, head of the NTIA, urged consumers now requesting coupons not to wait for them to arrive and to instead act quickly to ensure that they have at least one television set ready for Feb. 17 transition.

Under the rules set by Congress, which mandated that broadcasters switch from analog to digital broadcasts to free up more room in the wireless spectrum, the NTIA cannot commit more than $1.34 billion at any time to cover the cost of converter box coupons. That pool includes coupons that already have been redeemed; unexpired coupons that have been mailed out but not yet redeemed; and coupons that have been requested but not yet mailed out.

As The Associated Press reported Friday, Congress could address the funding problem by approving more money for the coupon program or raising the $1.34 billion cap by waiving the accounting rules that require the NTIA to wait for unredeemed coupons to expire before issuing new ones.

"The NTIA has left us with precious little time to respond to the cash crunch," Edward Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said in an interview Monday.

Markey is working on bipartisan legislation to waive the accounting rules and said he hopes to pass a bill as soon as possible. That would immediately free up tens of millions of dollars for the program and buy Congress a few weeks to examine larger funding problems, he said.

The NTIA estimates that based on preliminary data and a 60 percent redemption rate, roughly 351,000 coupons will expire each week through the Feb. 17 transition, roughly 495,000 coupons will expire weekly through March 16, and 655,000 will expire weekly during the last two weeks of March.

Sen. John Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, agreed that Congress needs to act quickly.

"The change to digital television is just weeks away, and today we learn that the Bush Administration's approach to nickel-and-dime efforts aimed at making this conversion easier on consumers is flat broke," Rockefeller said in a statement. "The failure to protect consumers is simply astounding."

Although the converter box coupon program is open to all, it was created to help consumers who rely on analog television sets to pick up over-the-air broadcast TV signals, including many in minority and low-income communities. Under the program, consumers can request up to two $40 coupons per household to help pay for the converter boxes, which can translate digital signals from the airwaves into analog ones and generally cost between $40 and $80.

Coupon requests have ticked up sharply over the past six weeks as the NTIA, along with the Federal Communications Commission, TV broadcasters, cable operators and consumer electronics makers have ramped up efforts to educate people about the upcoming transition.

So far, more than 24 million households have requested more than 46 million coupons and redeemed more than 18 million of them, according to the NTIA.

Consumers do not need a coupon to purchase a converter box. Consumers also can sign up for cable or satellite TV or buy a television set with a digital tuner to ensure that their TV sets do not go dark on Feb. 17.

TV industry analysts at Nielsen Co. estimate that as of December, 6.8 percent of the 114 million U.S. households with televisions remained completely unready for the digital transition. Another 10 percent still had at least one television set that was not yet ready.

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