By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 30, 2008; D01
In less than two months, television broadcasters will go all-digital, permanently shutting off the traditional analog signals they've relied on for more than half a century. Government officials say that means TV watchers have just two days to order coupons for the digital converter boxes they'll need to keep watching those antennaed sets.
About 14 million U.S. households watch television over an analog signal. Each will need to install a converter box -- a small set-top device that converts digital broadcasts back into analog so older TVs can still get a picture.
Orders for the boxes hit record highs over the weekend, rising 30 percent over the previous weekend. Now some in Congress are worried that the increased demand could lead to delays in getting the coupons to consumers.
Compared with the alternatives of subscribing to cable or satellite service, or buying a digital TV, getting a converter box with a government-sponsored coupon is much cheaper.
But even before the weekend spike in requests, mail delivery of the coupons was taking up to four weeks. Government officials now are urging consumers to order the vouchers by the end of the year to get them before the Feb. 17 shut-off date.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, said Friday that "it is becoming increasingly clear that at minimum Congress may need to quickly pass additional funding for the converter box program in early January to prevent any delay in coupon availability or issuance."
Congress originally allocated $1.5 billion to provide $40 vouchers to help offset the cost of the converters, which cost between $50 and $80. Markey said that "lingering consumer confusion" about the transition and a possible shortage of converter boxes could threaten the transition's success.
"We're urging consumers who need the coupon to apply by December 31 so they have plenty of time to get the coupon, buy the converter box and connect it before February 17," said Todd Sedmak, spokesman for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, an agency within the Commerce Department that is running the coupon program. "Some people may need someone to buy it for them or help connect it to the TV and antenna. Order it now, and it still gives you six weeks to take care of it."
So far, consumers have requested 44 million coupons and they have redeemed nearly 18 million. Sedmak said he expects "high demand" leading up to the transition.
Consumers can order coupons until March 31, or as long as supplies last, according to the NTIA. The agency said last week that it may need additional funds to ensure enough coupons are available in time for the transition.
Each household is eligible to order two $40 coupons, which expire after 90 days. Unredeemed coupons are supposed to be redistributed to other households. But as demand increases, some consumers could find themselves on a waiting list until funds from unredeemed coupons become available. That means some viewers who rely on antennas to receive TV signals may not get a coupon before the transition takes place.
A RadioShack spokeswoman declined to say how the converter boxes have been selling during the holidays. But the company said in October that strong sales of the digital converter boxes helped boost third-quarter revenues.
At the Best Buy in Alexandria's Landmark Mall, converter box sales dropped off during the holidays as consumers focused more on gift items such as game consoles and laptops, said store manager Luis Castillo.
"But now they're reminding themselves of the switch and traffic is starting to pick back up," he said. "A good amount of people are choosing to stay with the TV they have because there's nothing wrong with it," he said, adding that others are using the digital transition as an excuse to upgrade to a flat-screen TV.
Castillo said antennas have also been selling well, especially flat antennas that are not as visible as the traditional "rabbit ears."
In addition to a converter box, some TV watchers may need to get a more powerful antenna to receive the digital signals, according to the Federal Communications Commission. Digital signals do not travel as far as analog signals, and viewers in hilly or rural areas could have trouble tuning in. An analog picture gets fuzzier as signals get weaker, but digital signals either come in clearly or not at all. So viewers on the edge of a TV station's coverage area could lose their picture.
And stations are not required to replicate existing analog coverage areas with digital broadcasts. In a report released last week, the FCC said 196, or 11 percent of the nation's 1,749 full-power stations, will have a signal that reaches at least 2 percent fewer viewers than their current analog signals. The rest are expected to reach more people after the transition.
To fill in coverage gaps, stations can use translators, or repeaters, to extend the signal, use another station's digital airwaves to retransmit a signal or change its antenna pattern. Subscribers to satellite or cable services should not lose any stations.
Sen. Bernard Sanders (I-Vt.) introduced legislation this month asking Congress to give consumers an additional allowance to help offset the cost of a new antenna, should they need one. He is also pushing cable companies to offer a low-priced basic cable service to viewers who lose at least one station because of the switch. Most consumers will not know if they need a stronger roof-top antenna until the transition occurs.
"It would be traumatic and outrageous to create a transition program and the result of that being millions of low-income citizens losing what they have today," Sanders said. "There should be money in the stimulus package for it."
Sedmak of the NTIA said officials are encouraging family members and friends to help one another make the switch, whether it's with ordering a coupon or setting up a converter box.
To order a coupon, visit http://https://www.dtv2009.gov or call 1-888-DTV-2009.
By Kim Hart
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