Digital converter box program still not finalized

Senior members of the Democrat-controlled House of Representatives are unhappy with a $1.5 billion plan to make digital converter boxes available to lower-income citizens after analog broadcasting shuts down in February 2009.

The man in charge of administering that federal program, however, isn’t saying whether he’s willing to accommodate Democrat recommendations.

The program, written into law when the Republicans controlled Congress, would offer vouchers to defray the costs of purchasing digital-to-analog converter boxes. Households, the law specifies, can apply for up to two coupons worth $40 each toward purchases of the units, to be priced at roughly $50.

But, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), who will administer the program, still has not decided on many of the fine points. John Kneuer, head of the NTIA, told the "National Journal" that the general framework of the program is defined by law and cannot be modified.

He noted that the agency could tweak other aspects, however, including the many operational details addressed by Democrats in a Nov. 15 letter. NTIA, he said, will soon complete a rulemaking on how the agency will implement the program.

Rep. John Dingell (D-MI), the new chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, and Rep. Edward Markey (D-MA), now head of that panel’s Telecommunications and the Internet Subcommittee, have both criticized the program as inadequate and say it will leave many over-the-air viewers without TV coverage.

Among their major complaints, Dingell and Markey worry that participation is limited to households relying solely on over-the-air television. That restriction, they said, shuts out millions of Americans who receive digital signals via pay television, or those with digital sets who have additional analog TVs in their homes.