NTIA Relaxing Converter-Box Rules on P.O. Boxes, Nursing Homes

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration is preparing to change the rules of its digital-TV-to-analog converter-box program to help rural and older viewers.

Meredith Atwell Baker, acting head of the NTIA, told a Senate Commerce Committee hearing audience her agency was working on a proposed rulemaking that would allow viewers with Post Office boxes as their mailing address to qualify for the coupons, as well as those living in assisted-living facilities and nursing homes.

NTIA had used the Census Bureau definition for qualified households, but that excludes Post Office boxes and group homes.

That good news was supplied to the senators Tuesday, many of whom, like ranking Republican Ted Stevens (Alaska) are from states with hefty rural populations.

The chairman of the committee, Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), had some good news for Baker, as well. The NTIA had asked Congress to immediately free up some $65 million that had been set aside to help low-power stations make the conversion to digital.

Baker made another pitch for the legislation, S. 2607, during the hearing, and Inouye promised that the bill would be considered at an April 24 hearing of the committee and would pass unanimously.

Helping low-power stations has become an increasingly important issue with the realization that thousands of them are not required to make the transition to digital next year, so they will be continuing analog broadcasts, many for several years past that date. Compounding the problem is that most of the NTIA-approved converter boxes don't pass through those signals.

The thousands of translators that boost full-power signals to rural areas don't have to go digital in February 2009 -- a point made by several senators who ticked off the translators and low-power stations in their respective states.

Baker said that in addition to changing the rules on P.O. boxes and nursing homes, the NTIA just approved its eighth box (out of 68 certified) that passes through an analog signal, and several others were getting expedited reviews.

Baker, who announced that she was leaving the NTIA just before the White House nominated someone else to head it up, got good reviews from the senators, particularly Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who urged her not to leave.

The former head of the NTIA, John Kneuer, exited in January and McCaskill suggested that this was no time to be changing horses again in mid-digital-stream.

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.