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U.S. Scrambles To Avoid TV Converter Box Fiasco

In addition to coupons, DTV Assistance Centers are opening in seven cities with low numbers of digital convertor-box coupon redemptions and high numbers of over-the-air television viewers.

Got an old TV with rabbit ears? Time is running out before the big digital switch of 2009. So to avoid a last-minute panic, the government is taking steps to help.

The Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) this week is urging consumers who rely on antenna-delivered analog broadcast TV to immediately apply for converter-box coupons or risk the possibility of losing TV signals when television stations switch to digital transmission on Feb. 17.

The process of applying for coupons, which have a value of $40 toward the purchase of a converter box, can take up to six weeks because consumers must wait to receive the coupons and test the system before the switchover date, the NTIA said. Congress mandated the switchover a few years ago to free up the valuable 700-MHz spectrum for emergency and other uses.

"There may be two months until the digital television transition concludes, but consumers who want to buy a TV converter box with a coupon should apply for it in the next two weeks or possibly risk losing use of their analog TV temporarily," acting NTIA administrator Meredith Baker said in a statement Wednesday.

In figures released by the NTIA, the majority of consumers with analog TVs appear to be signing up for the converter boxes. In California, for instance, the NTIA said that 93% of analog TV owners in Palm Springs had applied for coupons, 79% in Fresno-Visalia, and 72% in Los Angeles. Other states are likewise attracting requests for coupons in significant numbers.

To assist with the changeover, the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights Education Fund is working with NTIA to open DTV Assistance Centers in seven cities that have low numbers of digital convertor-box coupon requests and/or redemptions, and relatively high numbers of over-the-air television viewers. The communities are Atlanta; Detroit; Minneapolis-St. Paul; Portland, Ore.; San Antonio; San Francisco-San Jose-Oakland; and Seattle-Tacoma.

The switchover, mandated by the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act of 2005, requires full-power TV stations to switch to digital broadcasts after Feb. 17. The act also created the coupon program, which was funded by the FCC's 700-MHz auction earlier this year. Some $1.5 billion of the $19 billion raised in the auction has been earmarked for the coupon program.

The lion's share of the valuable 700-MHz spectrum was won by AT&T and Verizon -- nearly $16 billion of the $19 billion worth of spectrum. However, the public-safety provisions of the congressional act still haven't been met, because there were no bidders above the reserve price in the public-safety part of the auction.

Some cable companies have been offering free gear for the move to digital. Consumer groups have complained that in some instances, cable companies have been taking advantage of the switchover to move consumers to expensive services.

The NTIA noted that digital broadcast TV will deliver a clearer picture and additional programming choices to consumers.

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