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Feds Offer Vouchers to Cover TV Conversion Cost

Transition to digital TV catches many consumers by surprise

There's only one year left before over-the-air television signals switch from analog to digital, and many watchers who rely on "rabbit ears" or roof-top antennas will wake up to blank screens without the right equipment. 

To that end, the government is offering $40 coupons for anyone who needs to purchase a converter box to properly watch digital television on an analog set.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administation (NTIA), an arm of the Commerce Department, is offering the coupons through its official digital television site.

Beginning January 1, 2008, and continuing until March 31, 2009, television watchers can apply for up to two coupons per household towards buying converter boxes, one per set. Consumers can also call a 24-hour hotline to take requests at 1-888-DTV-2009 (1-888-388-2009).

Beginning February 18, 2008, the government will mail the coupons to applicants, which can then be used to purchase the converter boxes at major electronics retailers.

Although most electronics retailers have not begun advertising or selling digital converter boxes yet, the devices are expected to cost between $60 and $70. LG and Phillips are expected to unveil their converter box models at next week's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Fade to black

If you're confused by the news that you may suddenly need a new piece of equipment to watch your favorite television shows, don't worry--you're not alone.

The Nielsen ratings service and the Consumer Electronics Association estimated that as many as 11 to 14 percent of American households, or 13.5 million people, still watch over-the-air television and don't use cable or satellite services. Many of those households are unaware that the transition is taking place, or that they will be affected.

Consumer groups believe that the number of households that still use analog televisions is much higher, and that consumers should have been fully compensated for the cost of buying new converter boxes for their televisions.

Although the government has stopped short of offering full subsidization for the conversion, it was still willing to pony up nearly $1 billion dollars to fund the coupon program.

The government has been also criticized for not working hard enough to publicize the switch from analog to digital and informing consumers of the need to buy converter boxes.

Although Federal Communications Commission chairman Kevin Martin said he wants alerts about the change broadcast several times a day, Congress and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) have claimed NTIA and the FCC have no comprehensive plan in place to address the transition, or what will happen if thousands of angry television viewers wake up to blank screens once the change is complete.

The portion of the wireless spectrum used to broadcast analog television signals is being auctioned by the FCC, provoking a fierce bidding war between technology titans such as Google and AT&T. Although a portion of the newly free spectrum is required to be used for public safety services, the rest is up for grabs to the highest bidder.

What you can do

The following sites have more information about the analog-to-digital transition:

  • Our Dawn Carlson provides a thorough overview of what you need to know.
  • Visit the FCC's official DTV site to get more information.
  • Apply for a converter box coupon at the NTIA's converter program Web site.

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