Converter program set to run out of cash
WASHINGTON - As the Feb. 17 transition from analog to digital TV broadcasts looms, as many as 8 million households are still unprepared. But the government program that subsidizes crucial converter boxes is about to run out of money.
People who still rely on analog TV sets to pick up over-the-air signals will see their screens go dark when the changeover happens. To avoid that, those people have to switch to cable or satellite TV, buy a television set with a digital tuner, or buy a converter box that translates digital signals into analog.
To subsidize the converter boxes, most of which cost between $40 and $80, the government has been letting consumers request up to two $40 coupons per home. But any day now, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the arm of the Commerce Department in charge of administering the coupon program, expects to hit a $1.34 billion funding ceiling set by Congress.
Now the NTIA is warning that unless lawmakers offer more funding or new accounting rules, it will have to create a waiting list for coupon requests.
"If the government invests in just a few million TV converter boxes, which is a drop in the bucket of the enormous amount of money being spent on the stimulus package, it would do more good to keep all households connected," said Gene Kimmelman, vice president for federal policy at Consumers Union.
The NTIA estimates the funding cap is enough to cover 51.5 million coupons through March 31, the last day consumers can request them. But consumers had already requested 44.9 million coupons as of Wednesday, including 18 million that had been redeemed and 10.8 million that were in circulation but yet to be cashed in. That leaves just $68.2 million for additional coupons, and the NTIA received 184,000 coupons requests on Thursday alone.
If demand remains at or near current levels, the program would hit 51.5 million coupons by late January - and ultimately, roughly 60 million coupons would be requested by March 31, NTIA head Meredith Baker said in a recent letter to Representative Edward Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat.
Markey, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, has said Congress may need to allocate additional funding for the converter box coupon program.