Coupon Requests Now Getting Waitlisted

The nation’s converter-box coupon program has run out of money—at least for the moment.

Looking at it another way, the outreach efforts by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, FCC, broadcasters and other have been so successful that the American public has burned through some $1.34 billion worth of requests for the $40 coupons.

But some of that money is coming back around—recycled, in a way—as funds tied to expired, unredeemed coupons become available again 90 days after being sent.

Sunday, Jan. 4, NTIA hit its funding limit, and new requests are now being met with a place on a waitlist as the funds come back through. Requests fulfilled on a first-come, first-served basis. Already, 103,000 consumers are waitlisted for the coupons.

“We saw really a massive spike in coupon applications in the last six weeks,” NTIA Acting Administrator Meredith Attwell Baker said Monday in a conference call with reporters. She attributed the rush in part to the NTIA’s “Apply, buy and try” message for consumers to get going well ahead of Feb. 18 end of full-power analog television. The agency has also said consumers should allow up to six weeks to obtain and redeem coupons, meaning they should have applied by about Jan. 1 in order to be set up before the signals disappear.

Baker conceded some of the agency’s forecasts were off. She said the program received 7.2 million requests for coupons in December, “a larger number than we ever would have predicted.” She deflected questions about the NTIA’s overall prediction of the total number of coupons that would be requested, saying that different parties offered divergent figures on the number of over-the-air TVs in use. Congress, not NTIA, determined the funding level, she noted.

She also said that the agency predicted that demand would spike on certain days, but that instead the rate seems to be rising steadily, rather than rising and dropping.

The redemption rate for coupons is also rising, from around 50 percent through most of the program to closer to 60 percent.

She projected that without more funding, funds for 6 million more coupons would become available, although not necessarily before Feb. 18.

That still could leave some viewers without coupons. In late December, Nielsen said about 6.8 percent of all over-the-air-reliant households—more than 7 million households—were unprepared for the transition, with still more households having at least one television not equipped with a digital tuner, cable or satellite.

Baker did not directly say NTIA was seeking more money, only that it was discussing options with Congress.

She said the NTIA told Congress Nov. 10 that there could be a shortfall. But warnings about such a shortfall came far earlier. In June, an NTIA official suggested in a Congressional hearing that the program could need more funds for administrative costs, a statement quickly retracted by an NTIA spokesman at the time. As late as late July, Baker told Congress she thought the funds would be sufficient.

Monday, Baker also reiterated her warning, made in a December letter to Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, that demand for boxes could outpace availability of the converters by 2.5 million—not even counting people who might want to purchase the boxes without the benefit of a coupon.