DTV Converter Coupon Program Tested

The federal government received requests for nearly 4 million DTV converter coupons in January, the program’s inaugural month—roughly 10 times more than expected.

By mid-February, Greg Hephner was ready to transform at least 60 or so coupons into the converters necessary for analog TVs to decode digital broadcast signals. His store, Hephner TV in Wichita, Kan., was selected a pilot site for the coupon program.

“Our participation in the pilot program grew out of our relationship with Corporate Lodging Consultants, which is based here in Wichita,” Hephner said.

CLC specializes in rules-based payment processing and is among the group of companies awarded the government contract to handle coupon redemption and tracking. Hephner said he agreed to stock a few converters, and CLC supplied its 200 or so employees with coupons “to test the ‘real world’ operation of the redemption system prior to the general release of the coupons.”

Government officials dropped by to check it out he said, but so far, there hasn’t been a huge rush on converter boxes.

“We’ve sold a couple already to people without the coupon; people who didn’t want to mess with it,” Hephner said.

Hephner TV mostly has become a clearing house for DTV transition phone queries, particular since the pilot program was profiled in the local newspaper, The Wichita Eagle, Feb. 1.

“I got a call from Indiana today, and one from New Jersey on Friday,” Feb. 1, he said. “I’ve talked to quite a few people, and there is still a lot of confusion about high-definition versus digital. People ask, ‘if I get this new DTV box the government is subsidizing, will I get HDTV?’... It’s primarily older and lower-income citizens. I’d say about three-quarters of the calls are from retired people. Most know about something about the coupon program, but they don’t have the details.”

The government has a Web site explaining the DTV transition and the converter program at, but it doesn’t help everyone.

“We have had a lot of calls from people who don’t have Internet access and who don’t have computers,” Hephner said.

Established in 1950, Hephner TV is the largest independent TV retailer in the state of Kansas, according to its owner. The store, an LG dealership, exclusively stocks flat-panel HD sets, in addition to just one model of digital- to-analog converter, the Zenith DT900, retailing for $59.95. The DT900 is being demoed in the store on an outdoor mast as well as with rabbit ears. Hephner said he plans to keep “a balance of 60 or 70 in the building.” The Zenith DTT900 digital-to-analog converter box, retailing for $59.95 at Hephner TV.

Retailers had to meet certain criteria to be able to redeem the coupons being issued by the federal government through the National Telecommunications and Information Agency. The NTIA required stores to be able to track and report the redemption of coupons by individual security codes; and to be prepared for a system audit at any moment. Hephner said the store added no additional back-office or billing technology.

“They’ve made it very easy,” he said. “We can redeem these coupons by a simple phone call, a Web site or though a point of purchase, depending on how the store is set up.... It wasn’t quite as draconian as it seemed to be.” The next step in the program will be public response. Hephner said he initially didn’t anticipate a huge demand, given the high penetration of cable and satellite subscribers, “but we just don’t know.”