Bureaucrats Tell Congress Not to Worry About Coupon Program

National Telecommunications and Information Administration head John Kneuer once again tried to assure skeptics Thursday that the DTV converter box coupon program is under control.

Kneuer told the Senate Commerce Committee what he has been telling other worried groups: NTIA will select a contractor in mid-August to run the program; American consumers are better informed about the DTV transition than some worriers might think; the NTIA is engaging with a smorgasbord of ethnic, civic and government groups to let everyone know about the $40 converter box coupons; and, the NTIA plans to combine its measly $5 million education budget with the awesome power of the private sector to let the public know about the Feb. 17, 2009, end of analog broadcasts.

Cathy Seidel, chief of the Consumer and Government Affairs Bureau at the FCC, said federal enforcers have visited 1,089 retail stores to check for analog televisions that lack the required warning of the analog-shutoff, and have proposed $3 million in fines. It has reached out to children, seniors, Spanish speakers, rural areas and Indian Reservations.

Congress, echoing the concerns raised by various civic groups and by Democratic FCC Commissioners Jonathan Adelstein and Michael Copps in a House hearing Tuesday, isn't fully convinced.

"Frankly, this scares me, politically," said Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). "There is no anger that comes close to the anger of an American who can't get his television."

Others on the panel were less troubled. Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.) pronounced the transition "on track." Sen. Ted Stevens of Alaska, the committee's top Republican, called on the FCC to place as few restrictions as possible on the spectrum in the upcoming 700 MHz auction in order to maximize the revenue from the sales, which are designated for deficit relief and for DTV transition costs including the coupon program. Tuesday, the FCC is expected to provide guidance in this area.

McCaskill said that NTIA was being vague on its outreach, less than six months from the coupon program's Jan. 1 start date.

"This is like tomorrow if we're talking about government time," she said.

More on this issue in the August 22 print and digital editions of TV Technology.