01.26.2009 12:40 AM
DTV Coupon Fix Bill Offered in House

Rep. Joe Barton, (R-Texas) rolled out a bill to put $250 million into the stalled DTV converter coupon program. The intent is to get the coupons in the mail again as soon as possible. Distribution ground to a halt almost four weeks ago when the program ran out of money. Nearly 2.6 million households have since been put on a waiting list for the plastic cards worth $40 against a digital-to-analog converter box. H.R. 661, introduced in the House Energy and Commerce Committee, starts off by railing against extending the DTV transition deadline beyond the current date of Feb. 17.

“Efforts to delay the transition will confuse people, leaving them less, rather than more, prepared,” it reads. “Delay will not more a single consumer off the waiting list for analog-to-digital converter box coupons.”

Barton’s bill also notes that delay would cost taxpayers another $650 million, as appropriated in the economic stimulus package unveiled two weeks ago; and delay the transfer of spectrum abandoned by TV stations to wireless carriers and first responders.

Technically, the bill increases the original program allocation from $1.5 billion to $1.75 billion, but the additional money is expected to be recouped from expired coupons. Congress decreed coupons should expire 90 days after date of issue. As of Jan. 21, more than $560 million was tied up in expired coupons; more are going into the dead pool at a rate of around $12 million a week.

H.R. 661 estimates that around 800,000 of the 14.3 million U.S. households that rely entirely on over-the-air television have not received a coupon. Of those, 600,000 are on the waiting list.

“Based on these figures,” the bill continues, “only 200,000 households could lose all service if such households do not take action. Such households represent less than 2 percent of exclusively over-the-air households, and less than two-tenths of 1 percent of all television households. Such a small number of households with the potential to lose service is not reason enough to delay the transition. Government and industry can help households get coupons and converter boxes if such households want them, but a small group will always be unprepared no matter what the government and industry do.”

Meanwhile, Senate Republicans have reportedly reached a compromise with Democrats on a bill that would close the transition over a four-month period, from Feb. 17 through June 12. That bill is expected to emerge for a vote this week.

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