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NTIA's Baker: Converter Boxes Should Be on Shelves Feb. 18

Acting National Telecommunications and Information Administration chief Meredith Atwell Baker said Thursday that she was still confident that digital-TV-to-analog converter-box manufacturers will have those boxes on the shelves by Feb. 18 (exactly one year before the DTV switch), when the NTIA has said it will start processing applications for coupons good toward the purchase of those boxes.

That assertion came in the NTIA's first formal meeting with its government partners in a wide-ranging DTV-education effort. NTIA has been meeting individually with the partners for months, but this was the first time everyone was in the same room.

Baker -- flanked by banners in English and Spanish that read, "Will Your TV Work After February 17, 2009?" -- said she did not think the Federal Communications Commission will need to require broadcasters to air public-service announcements about the transition or cable operators to use billstuffers, adding that voluntary industry efforts remained the best way to get the message across. She praised those efforts again Thursday.

The NTIA's Tony Wilhelm, director of consumer affairs for the campaign, outlined some of the upcoming education efforts. They include a "benefits week" in April, when the emphasis will be on selling the social benefits of the transition beyond clearer pictures, which include helping to free up spectrum for first-responders who protect the local community, and the freeing up of spectrum for advanced wireless devices that will benefit consumers.

Then in September comes "application completion" week, where churches, synagogues, mosques and other community gathering places will be encouraged to provide application information.

Come fall, as the time grows shorter, the emphasis will switch to "Life Without Television" to emphasize that some viewers could lose their signals if they don't take action.

Wilhelm said the NTIA would look to work with rural and other groups on a targeted message to rural and urban communities with low-power stations that may not necessarily be making the switch to digital Feb. 17, 2009. While all full-power stations have to switch by then, low-power stations and translators that relay signals to remote areas do not, so the government will need to get that point across amid all of the material promoting the Feb. 17 date.

The representatives -- from groups including the FCC, the Federal Trade Commission, the Veterans Administration, AARP and even the Food Stamp program -- appeared eager to help get the message out.

Among the suggestions were putting DTV-transmission information on grocery-store receipts, posting a two-minute educational video -- produced by WUSA-TV Washington, D.C., and the Association for Maximum Service Television (MSTV) -- on YouTube and creating an NTIA podcast.

“We will certainly work on the podcast,” Wilhelm said, adding that the NTIA didn't want to be the only agency without one.

Fresh from a Kaiser Family Foundation forum critical of broadcast and cable PSA efforts, FCC commissioner Deborah Taylor Tate said she managed to work a plug for the transition into that venue, and she praised broadcasters for their education efforts.

Converter-box update: Baker said that as of Wednesday, 3.7 million coupons had been applied for.