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Don't sign up for your $40 DTV converter box coupon--yet

While you can sign up for a $40 DTV converter box coupon now, those coupons expire three months after they are mailed, which may make it smarter to wait a few months until better, cheaper boxes become available.

The DTV transition is less than a year away and as of January 1, 2008, Americans have been eligible to sign up for a $40 coupon to help purchase DTV converter boxes needed to receive new digital TV signals. While your instincts may tell you to sign up as quickly as possible, there's a strong argument to be made to hold off for a little while. Here's why:

1. The coupon expires in three months
If you carefully read you the FAQ on the government's Web site, the program clearly states that the $40 coupons expire three months after they're shipped. That's unfortunate because we're guessing many people don't think much of it, and are just trying to sign up before they forget. Now you're forced into getting whatever DTV boxes that are currently on the market, even though...

2. Better, cheaper boxes are coming
None of the DTV converter boxes we've seen so far are available for $40 yet, which means you'll need to kick in some real American dollars in addition to your coupon. Echostar is planning on releasing a $40 converter box, the TR-40, but it won't come out until this summer--so if you already have your coupon, you probably won't be able to get it. That wouldn't be so bad, except that the Echostar TR-40 looks like it's going to be substantially better than current models, offering a full EPG and program search functoinality. Even if the Echostar device isn't everything it's cracked up to be...

3. Current models will get cheaper
This is just an educated guess, but don't be surprised if all of the current DTV converter boxes currently going for $50 to $60 suddenly drop to $40 once the Echostar TR-40 comes out. It will be near impossible for the other boxes to compete with free, so they'll be forced to sell for $40, which means it essentially free to consumers with a coupon.

The main counterargument against waiting is that if you wait too long, it's possible that the government's coupon program will run out of money. That's definitely something to consider, as there are only 22.25 million coupons available. After those are used up, an additional 11.25 million coupons will become available, but only to households that solely use analog over-the-air TV (no cable, satellite, Fios, and so on). So if you're worried that you're not going to get a coupon at all, you can play it safe and sign up now. But it's probably a pretty safe bet that the current coupon program won't run dry during the next couple months, and you'll get more out of that $40 coupon.

To get a better of idea of how long it takes to get a coupon, check out the government's "Where's My Coupon?" page.

DTV transition resources

CNET's Quick Guide to the DTV transition
DTV Coupon Program
FAQ: What the digital switch actually means
Antenna Web: Find what digital signals you can receive