Kneuer: Give Us a Hand Already

Hello--it's not as if the federal spectrum management agency doesn't have enough to do, John Kneuer told a room full of Beltway wags recently. Kneuer is assistant secretary of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which got the onerous task of telling the public that the nation's free analog TV signals are walking the "Green Mile."

Kneuer said that "nothing will have more immediate, tangible impact" than the DTV transition.

The 2009 analog deadline bill that was passed in February directs the NTIA to figure out how to distribute $40 coupons for digital-to-analog converter boxes. The bill allocates up to $1.5 billion for the program, $5 million of which was designated for public education.

Given that $5 million is pretty skimpy for a nationwide publicity campaign, Kneuer is asking for help, particularly from broadcasters. When TVs go dark on Feb. 17, 2009, broadcasters are going to get the phone calls, he said. (One broadcaster in the group said callers would be referred to the government...)

The task at hand for the NTIA is unlike any the agency has ever dealt with. With scant direction from Congress, it will have to develop the coupon program, designate eligible devices, notify the public and figure out some way to qualify households. The number of U.S. households that rely exclusively on over-the-air television has been estimated as high as 20 million by the Government Accountability Office, but nothing in the legislation guarantees those households will get a D-to-A converter coupon. It has more of a first-come, first-serve feel:

(A) A household may obtain coupons by making a request as required by the regulations under this section between Jan. 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009, inclusive. The assistant secretary [Kneuer] shall ensure that each requesting household receives, via the U.S. Postal Service, no more than two coupons.
(B) Two coupons may not be used in combination toward the purchase of a single digital-to-analog converter box.
(C) All coupons shall expire three months after issuance.

The NTIA hasn't exactly issued a truckload of information about the directive, and three weeks ago, a coalition of 17 lobbies and businesses wrote to Kneuer to say, "hey, how about that coupon program?" The letter suggested having the coupons take the form of a debit card "with unique identification numbers that can be tracked to ensure protections against fraud."

Kneuer said the missive was "enormously welcome," and that a rulemaking on the program would be forthcoming "this summer."

In the meantime, at least one member of the public appears to be educated about the coupon program. Kneuer said he received a request from a constituent who read about the program in USA Today. However, the return address read, "Outgoing Inmate Mail." The legislation gives no direction as to whether prisons qualify as households.