Dingell, Markey: NTIA Unrepared for Unredeemed DTV Coupons

The heads of the House committees concerned with communications policy are concerned that the National Telecommunications and Information Administration is going to run out of money to process digital-TV-to-analog coupons.

In a letter to acting NTIA head Meredith Attwell Baker, House Energy & Commerce Committee chairman John Dingell (D-Mich.) and Telecommunications Subcommittee chairman Ed Markey (D-Mass.) suggested that the program has been mismanaged and asked how the NTIA is going to resolve it.

That problem, as the congressmen see it, is that the NTIA has money -- $160 million -- to process and mail out 33.5 million $40 coupons. But millions of those are going unredeemed -- $3 million worth have already expired, according to the NTIA -- and they are concerned that there aren't administrative funds to process the recycling of those coupons for new requests.

“The digital-television transition is now less than seven months away and millions of consumers are counting on the NTIA to ensure that they don’t lose their local television signals,” Dingell said in a statement announcing the inquiry and invoking the "mismanagement" term. “Now we find that the NTIA has not adequately planned for reissuing expired coupons. The committee intends to determine whether and where there have been shortcomings in the administration of this program, why they were allowed to occur, who was involved and, most important, how these problems will be corrected without penalizing consumers.”

“The NTIA has long been aware that redistributing expired coupons in a timely fashion would be key to ensuring that everyone who needs a coupon receives one," Markey said in a separate statement. "The NTIA’s apparent lack of planning is a serious oversight, one that they must correct promptly and without dipping into the funds marked to help consumers purchase converter boxes."

Baker responded in a statement e-mailed to B&C that the NTIA has taken reissuing into account: “The contract with IBM does address recycled coupons," she said. "The program has been very successful, with nearly 20 million coupons requested and more than 5.5 million coupons redeemed to date. We anticipated coupons would be recycled and prepared for it."

She continued, "To meet the high public demand for coupons, the NTIA is exercising the clause under which we will distribute additional coupons beyond 33.5 million coupons. We will continue to work closely with Congress and are committed to making this program a success."

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.