Consumers Union: Delay DTV Transition


Washington -- A leading consumer organization is calling on Congress to consider delaying the Feb. 17 digital TV transition, alleging that a key converter box coupon program subsidized by the federal government has run out of money and could leave millions of consumers without broadcast TV. 

On Feb. 17, all full-power TV stations need to turn off their analog signals. Analog TV sets not connected to a digital-to-analog converter box -- which costs between $40 and $60 at retail -- or not connected to a pay-TV service like cable will go dark in an all-digital world. 

NTIA notified Congress in November that a budget law called the Antideficiency Act would delay the release of coupons if coupon requests surged late in the program, which expires on March 31. 

Congress, as well as the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, pressured NTIA to allow pay-TV households to apply for coupons, even though households that rely exclusively on free, over-the-air-television were the only ones that absolutely needed to take action to watch digital TV signals on their old analog sets. 

As a result, 115 million U.S. households were entitled to request two $40 coupons each, though the program had funding for just 33.5 million coupons. Under pressure from Congress, NTIA also didn't stick to its original policy of allowing just broadcast-only homes to apply for the last $450 million in funding. 

The National Association of Broadcasters sent a letter Wednesday to Senate Commerce Committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and the Commerce Committee's top Republican, Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), proposing ways to unfreeze NTIA's program. 

The trade group, for instance, said Congress could increase funding for the coupon program by an unspecified sum, and it could permit NTIA to assume that less that 100% of active coupons will be redeemed. 

"A modification of the projected redemption rate, e.g., an assumed 80 percent redemption rate, would free up more money for coupons to be delivered to consumers," NAB president David Rehr's letter said. 

Rehr also said Congress could waive the Antideficiency Act with confidence in knowing that about half of all coupons issued won't be used. 

"Lifting the Antideficiency Act requirements on the program would allow the NTIA to distribute more coupons without an additional appropriation," Rehr said.