Inadequate funding for vouchers led to current DTV problems

If the DTV transition is delayed, the excuse will be because the government ran out of money for subsidizing DTV converters. But for a substantial number of viewers, a converter box may not help them receive DTV stations. The new group of incoming politicians in Washington knows this.

As of a week ago, consumers requesting $40 vouchers to help purchase a converter box were placed on a waiting list, and federal officials warn that TV watchers may not receive the coupons in time for the switch.

A coupon is not needed to purchase a converter box. But with boxes costing $50 to $80 in retail stores, Republicans pushed Congress to allocate $1.34 billion to provide coupons to help offset the price. At the time, Democrats argued that wasn’t enough money, and they were right.

Now, with Democrats in control of both the White House and Congress, they will take the blame if the DTV transition doesn’t work, thus, the panic now in the final days before the scheduled analog turnoff.

Consumer groups, television stations and lawmakers say the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department that runs the coupon program, should have planned for an increase in demand for coupons as the deadline approached. They are criticizing the agency for failing to notify Congress of a possible funding shortfall earlier.

Sen. John Rockefeller, D-WV, the incoming chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, called it a failure of the Bush administration. “The failure to protect consumers is simply astounding,’’ he said.

Adding to the public confusion has been years of misleading information from the government and consumer electronic manufacturers about the necessary antennas needed to pick-up DTV stations over the air. Only in recent months has it been revealed that many viewers may not be able to receive DTV signals — even with a converter box — unless they install a tall roof-mounted antenna with a rotor for aiming the elements.

Due to the so-called “cliff effect,” DTV signals don’t work at all when they encounter multipath problems, such as caused by tall buildings, mountains, trees and other obstructions. Only an outdoor antenna, which can be expensive to install, can solve the problem.

For this reason, cable and satellite companies are anticipating a boost in subscribers from viewers who give up the attempt to receive over-the-air signals from stations.

And the Democrats are running for cover.