TV are viewers unprepared for switch, coupons are running short

About half of the households that could lose television service after the transition to digital broadcasting are still unprepared for the switch, says a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The report, released last week, confirms the fear of members of Congress that millions of constituents could find themselves facing a blank television screen next Feb. 17.

On top of that, an administration official admitted to House lawmakers for the first time that more money might be needed to mail out all the $40 government coupons to subsidize converter boxes that some TV owners will need for the February 2009 switchover.

Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, associate director of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), said at a hearing that it was possible the agency “would have to get more money, basically to buy more stamps to send out coupons.”

Nationwide, an estimated 70 million television sets rely on antennas to receive over-the-air analog signals. After analog television is turned off next February, viewers will need a converter box, a digital television, or a pay-television service.

However, it’s not even that simple, because with a converter box — many of which do not have upgradeable software or can pick up low-power stations — viewers may still need a tall outdoor antenna with motorized directionality in certain areas of the country.

“No matter what we do and no matter how many tax dollars we spend, we’re not going to be at a point where there aren’t any effects,” Rep. John Shimkus, R-IL, told the House subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet last week.

The GAO report found that about 84 percent of consumers were aware of the transition but that many do not know what to do. More than half the 1010 people surveyed said they knew about the government program to get coupons to help pay for converter boxes that allow analog TVs to receive digital broadcasts, but two-thirds of the people who want a coupon didn’t know how to get one.

More than 3 million converter boxes have been redeemed. However, many members of the House subcommittee expressed concern that converter box coupons may expire before consumers can find a box they can afford or that has the features they want.

The $40 coupons are available through a $1.5 billion program run by the NTIA. But the coupons expire after 90 days, and consumers are currently not eligible to reapply.

The GAO report also found that only a few converter boxes currently available will allow TVs to continue receiving analog signals from low-powered stations, which typically air local broadcasts and are not required to make the transition to digital. Most of the boxes are also not software upgradeable.

About 800,000 coupons — the first batch to be sent to TV viewers — recently expired. Less than half — 42 percent — were redeemed, according to the NTIA. The agency said it would decide whether to reissue the coupons after more detailed redemption rates were available next month.

The NTIA issued a statement after the hearing saying it “has no plans to ask Congress for any additional funds.”

Rep. John D. Dingell, D-MI, chairman of the committee, said he’s worried that all the attention being given to the Wilmington, NC, DTV experiment will make it an unrealistic test case.