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Feds to start mailing digital-TV upgrade funds

Next week, the government plans to begin shipping $40 coupons to anyone who requests help buying a basic converter box that keeps older TVs alive after the digital switch next year.

If you're among the 2.4 million Americans who have already applied for government subsidies to offset the cost of a forced digital television upgrade, you should be receiving that voucher soon.

Next week, the U.S. Department of Commerce plans to start mailing out the $40 coupons, which can be used to defray the cost of selected converter boxes that permit older, analog televisions to receive digital broadcasts, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez said Friday.

It's all part of the congressionally mandated switch from analog to all-digital broadcasts scheduled to occur on February 17, 2009.

Here's a favorite demo that digital TV converts like to show: contrast the snowy picture generated by the good ol' rabbit-ears antenna and analog tuner on the left screen with the clearerimage on the right of the analog TV outfitted with a converter box. Anne Broache/CNET News.com

If you're currently a cable, satellite, or Internet Protocol TV subscriber, you're most likely not going to have to make any changes. But anyone who relies on over-the-air broadcasts will need to purchase a TV or DVD player with a digital tuner--or take the arguably thriftier route of outfitting an existing analog TV with a digital-to-analog converter box.

To that end, the government is allowing any household, regardless of income level or any other factors, to request up to two of the $40 coupons during a first phase, in which 22.5 million coupons are expected to be available. If that supply runs out, Congress can authorize some 11 million more vouchers, but households applying for that batch would have to self-certify reliance on over-the-air broadcasts.

Some 9,700 store locations across the country are prepared to accept the electronic cards next week, and another 7,000 or so expect to be able to redeem them in the coming months, according to the Commerce Department. The coupon-request Web site allows you to search for the nearest retailer who's supposed to be stocking one or more of the certified models.

The eligible boxes--some of which are apparently already in stores--cost between $40 and $70, according to the Commerce Department. Here's a complete list of the more than 30 certified boxes.

Remember that the coupons expire 90 days after they're mailed. Right now, the government isn't allowing households to reapply for help beyond the two-coupon maximum if theirs expire, although some congressional Democrats are urging more flexibility.

Applications are still being accepted online at or by calling 888-DTV-2009 (888-388-2009). You can also apply by mail or fax. The government plans to accept applications until March 31, 2009, or until the coupons run out, whichever comes sooner.

For more information about the digital TV switch, check out CNET News.com's latest FAQ.