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DTV coupon program back on track

The federal agencies responsible for the national digital television transition are stepping up outreach efforts and will again be distributing converter box coupons.

WASHINGTON--Federal regulators said Thursday they are going into "search and rescue" mode to help the millions of consumers unprepared for the phased transition to digital television, which culminates with the June 12 transition deadline.

The millions of consumers waiting for coupons for digital converter box coupons will finally receive them within the next two and a half weeks, thanks to emergency funding for the coupon program provided in the stimulus package, said Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, an administrator for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

The NTIA is also ratcheting up its outreach to consumers most likely to be unprepared for the transition, McGuire-Rivera said Thursday at a Federal Communications Commission meeting. The FCC commissioners said their agency is also intensifying its outreach, but they acknowledged that while one third of television stations have already dropped their analog signals, the hardest part is yet to come.

Searching for a March Madness analogy, acting FCC Chairman Michael Copps said, "We might have survived the first round game, but the games are only going to get tougher."

In sincerity, though, he said, "there are no analogies--nothing from which to draw parallels. This is why a phased transition is so helpful. It's too bad we had to get to a phased transition so painfully."

The transition has been painful in large part because the NTIA has had to put millions of consumers on a waiting list for the $40 coupons it is distributing for digital converter boxes, after it spent the $1.3 billion initially provided for the coupon program. The stimulus package President Obama signed into law allocated an additional $650 million for the program.

Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, administrator for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration
Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, administrator for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration

Thanks to that extra funding, the NTIA should be able to mail out about 2 million coupons per week, McGuire-Rivera said, getting coupons to the millions on its waiting list in less than three weeks. The agency is also expecting to run its coupon program more efficiently now that it has expanded the number of banks issuing the debit card coupons and enhanced its waste, fraud, and abuse checks.

Additionally, the coupons will now only take an average of nine days to reach consumers, rather than 21 days, now that the NTIA has moved from bulk postage to first-class postage.

The agency is also changing its rules so it will be able to send replacement coupons to people with expired coupons. There are about 16 million people with expired coupons, McGuire-Rivera said, but the agency expects only about half of those people to request new ones.

McGuire-Rivera said the funding will allow for a total of 12 million more coupons to be issued, and it is unlikely there will have to be another waiting list.

The NTIA will be spending $90 million of its stimulus funding on outreach efforts aimed at the approximately 5 million households still unprepared for the transition.

"Our theme for these last days is search and rescue," McGuire-Rivera said.

The FCC is also redoubling its efforts to educate consumers on antenna issues, the need to scan and rescan televisions to pick up changed channels, and how to cope with signal problems.

"It's crucial that we change from our earlier message of awareness to a real plan for assistance," Commissioner Jon Adelstein said. "This is our last chance to get it right, and I'm confident we are doing everything to do so."

More than 600 television stations have already switched to digital signals. The transition went fairly smoothly on February 17, when the majority of those stations made the change. However, only about 15 percent of American households were impacted by the February 17 transition.

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell warned that there will still be problems, regardless of the agency's outreach efforts.

"We haven't yet had a transition on a large scale in our large cities," he said. "When that transition does come, it will be messy in some places. Extra time will not allow us to make the transition flawless."

All television stations will be expected to notify the FCC by March 17 of the date on which they intend to transition to digital signals.