Fed Urges, Convert Now!

The federal government is telling folks to get on the stick and apply for digital TV converter coupons. The agency in charge of the program is trying to avoid a rush before the end of analog TV on Feb. 17, 2009. “We urge consumers who need coupons not to wait until the last minute and to apply for your coupons, buy a converter box, and try the box with their television as soon as possible,” said Meredith Baker, acting assistant secretary and administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. Baker said the early shut-off tests conducted in Wilmington, N.C. last month demonstrated the need for preparation when it comes to converter boxes. Viewers in Wilmington placed more than 2,200 calls to government agencies and the local guinea pig TV stations asking for help with reception. Antennas emerged as a major concern. Indoor antennas able to pull in analog signals on VHF channels may not work for digital signals, particularly if the station’s new channel assignment has been moved to the UHF band, as many have. An FCC break down of call topics indicated that more than 700 involved problems with receiving WECT-TV, Raycom’s NBC affiliate in Wilmington, which moved from Channel 6 to Channel 44. (The VHF band comprises Channels 2 through 13. UHF includes Channel 14 and above.) Another 549 said they had reception problems unrelated to WECT. At least 74 callers said their coupon--worth $40 against certified digital-to-analog converter boxes--didn’t arrive in time for the shut-off. A total of 341 said they couldn’t get the converter boxes to work. Seventy-one callers had either DirecTV or Dish, but had failed to subscribe to the local package; and 25 callers erroneously thought they had cable or satellite service when they did not. The NTIA has ordered 44.5 million coupons and mailed more than 27 million. Orders through September exceeded 117,000 a day on average, or more than 3.5 million for the month. An estimated 70 million TV sets may require the converters to continue working after analog broadcast TV signals are shut down next February.