Feds prepare for all-digital broadcasting in 2009

WASHINGTON — Uncle Sam wants your television set to keep working, and the federal government has announced details of a subsidy program aimed at households with TVs at risk of going dark after the transition to all-digital broadcasting in 2009.

The Dept. of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration on Monday unveiled plans to offer all U.S. households a maximum of two coupons worth $40 each to be applied toward the purchase of digital-to-analog converter boxes. The boxes will allow over-the-air-dependent analog sets to continue to receive a picture after the February 2009 cutoff date for analog signal broadcasting.

Otherwise, those sets will only have “snow or a blue screen,” NTIA chief John Kneuer said.

Analog sets hooked to either cable or satellite systems will continue to work since cablers and satcasters will convert digital signals to analog for customers with analog sets.

In mandating the transition to digital, Congress earmarked $1.5 billion to help consumers buy converter boxes. The money is to be parceled out in two steps — an initial outlay of $990 million, followed by an additional $510 million if necessary.

Kneuer said the $990 million should cover about 22 million $40 coupons, which will be distributed regardless of income level or whether a household has at least one TV set that is either digital or hooked to cable or satellite. Broadcasters and consumer electronics manufacturers successfully persuaded the NTIA to include households with both kinds of sets in the program.

However, the remaining $510 million of coupons, if needed, will be available only to analog-only, over-the-air households. Kneuer said this money would cover some 11.25 million coupons.

Estimates of how many analog-only, over-the-air sets are still operating in the country vary from as little as 18 million to 75 million.

The coupons will be available from Jan. 1, 2008, through March 31, 2009.

Kneuer declined to speculate on what the retail price will be for the converter boxes that consumer electronics manufacturers are developing. But industry estimates have ranged between $50 and $75.

“The NTIA’s final DTV rules reflect the appreciation Americans place on having access to free, local television,” National Assn. of Broadcasters prexy-chief David Rehr said in a statement. “Both government and industry have an obligation to complete the DTV transition with as little disruption to consumers as possible.”

“The nation’s move to digital television is proceeding apace, and today’s NTIA action is a vital step in this successful transition,” said Consumer Electronics Assn. topper Gary Shapiro in a statement.

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