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DTV Coupons Get "Junk Mail" Treatment

The U.S. Postal Service has a suggestion for legislators looking to speed up mailing of DTV-to-analog converter box coupons: Use a first-class stamp.

The postal service was drawn into the fray over the digital-TV transition last week when the House Energy & Commerce Committee asked it to prioritize mailing of the coupons, which provide a $40 subsidy for consumers who need a converter box to receive digital broadcasts after the February 2009 switch.

That’s because the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which issues the coupons, has been sending them bulk rate to save money. (The difference between a 42-cent first-class stamp and a 25-cent standard may seem small. But multiplied by some 17 million envelopes—figuring for 33.5 million coupons the agency plans to issue, two per household—the savings could be close to $3 million.)

Since the coupons expire 90 days from mailing, legislators wrote to Postmaster General John Potter, saying, "[W]e strongly urge you to give mailed coupons priority status so households receive them promptly."

The USPS had not officially responded to the legislators at presstime, but spokesman Gerald McKiernan told B&C it would be impossible to expedite processing of coupons already sent standard rate.

The coupons are being processed at a Langhorne, Pa., facility, which cycles first-class mail through different machines and out the door in one to three days; standard-rate "advertising" mail can take seven to 10.

"We can’t isolate and track standard mail, which we can do with first-class," McKiernan says. "They just haven’t paid for that type of postage."

And if the NTIA started using first-class stamps? "I think that would change the scenario overnight," he adds.

So far, McKiernan says, no problems with the coupon mailings have been reported—if anything, perhaps some addresses received via the NTIA phone line might have been "improperly recorded."

Then again, he says, "since it is advertising mail—or as some people call it, ‘junk mail’— some people don’t pay attention to it and they trash it, and that may be occurring as well."

By John Eggerton