DTV Transition: More Than 4 Million Still Not Ready

A U.S. government agency has cleared a waiting list for coupons for converter boxes for digital television signals, but an estimated 4.1 million U.S. households are still not ready for a June 12 transition from analog to digital TV, lawmakers heard Thursday.

The estimated number of U.S. households not ready for the switch is down from 6.5 million in mid-January, said Representative Rick Boucher, a Virginia Democrat and chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee's technology subcommittee. Boucher praised the U.S. National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) for clearing up a long-waiting list for DTV coupons, but he also expressed concern that the nation could run out of converter boxes.

While the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) estimates that there will be an additional 4.2 million converter boxes needed by June 12, there are currently about 9.3 million coupons in circulation, Boucher said. Even if the percentage of coupons cashed in continues at the current rate of about 60 percent, about 5.5 million converter boxes will be needed, he said.

The NTIA shares Boucher's concern, but so far supplies of converter boxes have been holding up, said Anna Gomez, NTIA's acting administrator. NTIA will closely monitor the supplies of converter boxes, she said during a subcommittee hearing.

NTIA has issued 52.7 million coupons and 26 million have been redeemed, Gomez said. Coupons expire after 90 days. The digital converter boxes are needed for older televisions that get over-the-air broadcasts, and the NTIA program provides US$40 coupons for U.S. residents to purchase the boxes. Basic converter boxes cost between $40 and $80.

Several lawmakers raised doubts about the continued transition.

Congress passed legislation in February to delay the transition from Feb. 17 to June 12 and give NTIA an additional $650 million for converter box coupons and consumer education. The backlog of coupon requests came after the NTIA's $1.3 billion budget for coupons was used up.

Representative John Dingell, a Michigan Democrat, asked Gomez if the additional $650 million would be enough. Gomez said she hoped it would be.

"Hope won't do when you have a bunch of angry consumers," Dingell said.

Dingell also asked whether the NTIA had a prediction for the number of coupons that will be requested. NTIA is still working on estimates, because the legislation giving the agency additional money also allowed households to re-apply for expired coupons, Gomez said.

NTIA's handling of the coupon program has not "comforted me," Dingell said.

Many Republican lawmakers said they remained convinced the DTV delay wasn't needed. Already, about a third of U.S. TV stations have converted to digital broadcasts, and most have received few complaints, said Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican. "The sky did not fall," he added.

Other Republicans questioned the need for additional money when about 95 percent of U.S. households were ready for the transition in February. "There's always going to be a certain percentage of people who are not ready," said Representative Lee Terry, a Nebraska Republican.

Representative Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, suggested the NTIA should have money left over when the coupon program ends. He pressed Gomez to give a date when the money could be returned to the U.S. treasury.

Gomez said the coupons will be available until July 31 and those coupons won't expire for 90 days. Any money left over would be returned after those coupons expire, she said.

The DTV conversion is needed after Congress, in late 2005, passed legislation requiring U.S. TV stations to move to all-digital broadcasts and abandon analog spectrum between channels 52 and 69. Much of the cleared spectrum, in the 700MHz band, was sold in auctions that ended in early 2008, and many spectrum experts say the spectrum is optimal for wireless broadband services. Other portions of the freed-up spectrum are designed for emergency response agencies.

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