NTIA to Begin Distributing DTV-to-Analog Converter-Box Coupons Feb. 17

Consumers can apply for digital-TV-to-analog converter-box coupons starting Jan. 1, but the National Telecommunications & Information Administration won't start handing them out until six weeks later, Feb. 17.

If that date sounds familiar, it is one year before the Feb. 17, 2009, switch to digital. If it doesn't sound familiar, the NTIA and others have their DTV-education work cut out for them.

Acting NTIA head Meredith Baker said the Feb. 17, 2008, date was timed to when retailers said they could have the boxes on the shelves.

In a press conference on the status of the DTV transition, Baker said that more than 14,000 brick-and-mortar stores were certified to sell the boxes, including Best Buy; Circuit City; Kmart; Sam's Club; Wal-Mart; Sears, Roebuck; RadioShack; and Target.

She added that she thought the program had enough money to provide coupons to everyone who asked for them.

But somewhat curiously for a DTV transition, the NTIA changed the name of the program to the "TV Converter Box Coupon Program," saying that as a result of 17 focus-group studies, it concluded that “DTV” could be confusing to analog viewers who just though of it as TV. "Unfortunately," she said, it was going to have to stick with the "DTV" in its Web site, www.DTV2009.gov, and in its 888 number.

Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) released a report from the Government Accountability Office suggesting that there needed to be more coordination of the DTV transition between the NTIA and the Federal Communications Commission, but Baker said the two were already in daily contact and the NTIA was also working with 14 other federal agencies and outside parties.

Asked whether the NTIA would help seniors and others with installing the converters, she said the agency was counting on trusted third party-partners, like AARP, to help with that.

Baker did not say how, but she did say that the NTIA would make sure that consumers applying for boxes starting Jan. 1 would be informed that the coupons would not be available until Feb. 17.

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.