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Digital converters set for sale in 2008

Some of the nation’s largest electronics retailers will begin selling digital over-the-air converters early next year.

Retailers are set to stock the converters by mid-February. The converters are designed to enable owners of analog television sets to continue to view on-air programming after the 2009 nationwide switch to digital television broadcasting.

Beginning Jan. 1, any person who claims to watch over-the-air television can ask the federal government for two $40-valued coupons that can be used toward the purchase of a converter box. The $1.5 billion federal program, enough to fund 33.5 million coupons, ends March 31, 2009.

“Over 100 retailers have been certified including a variety of small stores retail chains and these very large retailers,” said Meredith Baker, acting administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the federal agency overseeing the coupon program. “We have nationwide coverage with over 14,000 brick and mortar stores involved as well as with online participation.”

Baker told reporters that the $1.5 billion allocated by Congress should be enough to cover all affected households. There is no income cap on those who request the coupons.

The government has already certified some set-top converters, while others are expected to be approved in the coming weeks. The government has already approved models by Digital Stream Technology, LG Electronics and Royal Philips Electronics NV.

Though the NTIA tried to give the impression that all is running smoothly, members of Congress and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) are not so sure.

Last week, in a new report, the GAO said the FCC still has no master plan to oversee the digital conversion of television broadcasting. One major concern involves the retailers’ readiness and participation in the converter-box coupon program.

“The GAO contends that simply providing a laundry list of completed regulatory tasks is not the same thing as having a comprehensive plan. I agree,” said Rep. Ed Markey, D-MA. The government, he said, can still take “concrete and corrective action” if there’s the will.

FCC chairman Kevin Martin, when criticized by legislators last week about failing to educate the public about the transition, said the FCC has asked Congress twice for money to spread the word about digital television and twice has been denied. “I think without funds we are doing a very good job of educating consumers,” he said.

In the meantime, the NTIA will meet Jan. 24 with other federal agencies involved in the DTV transition. To be held at the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, the meeting will review planned activities for the promotion and sale of converters.

Applications for coupons can be made by phone at 1-888-DTV-2009 or through the government Web site beginning Jan. 1.