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NTIA broadens DTV coupon availability to include pay-TV homes

A federal subsidy program designed to aid the purchase of conversion boxes needed to receive digital over-the-air television signals has been broadened to cover pay-TV subscribers as well.

Under guidelines released last week by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), all viewers of television will be eligible for the first phase distribution of 22 million vouchers worth $40 each toward the purchase of a DTV converter. Congress has approved an appropriation of $990 million for the subsidy.

Originally, the program had been aimed only at viewers who receive free over-the-air television services. However, pressure from Democrat lawmakers, broadcasters, equipment manufacturers and consumer groups complained that many analog sets in cable or satellite homes still rely on terrestrial analog service.

The current NTIA plan would allow cable and satellite subscribers to apply for up to two $40 coupons per household to purchase converter boxes that allow over-the-air digital signals to be viewed on older analog sets. These boxes will be needed after analog service is turned off on Feb. 17, 2009.

The NTIA can request an extra $510 million in funding for another 11 million coupons. However, under the second phase, the coupons would be available only to homes without a pay service and who rely totally on terrestrial broadcast signals.

The coupons could be used only for basic converter boxes. Equipment with recording or playback functions would not qualify for purchase under the rules for the subsidy.

To reduce fraud, the NTIA said the vouchers would be electronically traceable and only issued by retailers that have sold electronics for a year and that are registered with a database. The coupons would be available from Jan. 1, 2008, to March 31, 2009.