Lawmakers Focus on Cracks in Coupon Program

The DTV transition is mostly working, full-power stations are getting ready for the analog shutoff, and knowledge about the transition and the coupon program is improving.

The comfort level on the transition for most members of the House Telecommunications and Internet Subcommittee has come a long way. At a hearing on the DTV transition Tuesday—the fifth such hearing the panel has held in the 110th Congress—not a single representative used the words “train wreck” to describe the transition.

“The process is working. The sky is not falling,” said Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., adding that he didn’t want to be the one people would say never told folks about it should problems arise.

But there are still details, some of them significant.

Rep. Bart Stupak, D-Mich., said his constituents were already calling with problems, notably about the lack of converter boxes available in their area. One constituent, Stupak said, finally gave his about-to-expire coupon to RadioShack, which processed it in return for a promise to gladly provide a converter box later.

In fact, that’s a practice the National Telecommunications and Information Administration generally doesn’t approve of, as some shady retailers have taken the coupons and held consumers “hostage” for boxes that will never arrive, said Bernadette McGuire-Rivera of the NTIA.

Stupak grilled McGuire-Rivera about the 90-day life of the coupons, which he said is becoming problematic because of the lack of boxes. But it was Congress itself, not the NTIA, that created the 90-day expiration rule.

The lawmakers also quizzed McGuire-Rivera about funding needs, although Congress is in no position to appropriate new funds until fall.

She said fewer than half (41.7 percent) of the first batch of 839,966 coupons, set to expire May 30 went unredeemed, and the funds dedicated to those coupons could be “recycled” into additional coupons, but would require funding for administrative costs—namely stamps.

NTIA clarified later that it has contingency funds for such expenses and would not ask Congress for more money.

She also promised swift action on a rule change to allow nursing home residents to more easily obtain the coupons.

In all, 16 million coupons had been requested and 2.7 million redeemed as of June 3.

FCC Chairman Kevin Martin told the panel in his written testimony that about 989 stations have completed full-power build-out on their post-transition channels; 150 are working on their final facilities; and one-third of all full-power stations (about 640) are changing channels for post-transition operation.