Digital TV converter program out of money

$1.3B budget for converter box vouchers has been depleted

A U.S. government program providing vouchers for digital television converters to people whose TV sets will stop working on Feb. 17 has run out of money.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced that it has used up the $1.3 billion in funding it had received from Congress for the TV Converter Box Coupon Program. Starting last Sunday, U.S. residents applying for a digital TV converter box voucher were put on a waiting list, the agency said.

On Feb. 17, U.S. television stations will stop broadcasting analog signals and switch to digital, as required by Congress. Many U.S. residents who own TVs receiving signals over the air through an antenna will no longer be able to receive TV signals, although some newer TV sets are capable of receiving digital broadcasts.

Customers of cable or satellite TV service will not be affected because they already have digital converter boxes as part of their service.

As of Monday, residents of about 24 million U.S. households had applied for 46 million converter box coupons, the NTIA said. Households can ask for two $40 coupons, and the coupons expire 90 days after they are mailed out. Several estimates have suggested that fewer than 20 million U.S. households have TV sets receiving over-the-air broadcasts.

Nearly 53% of the coupons requested have been redeemed, and 13 million have expired, the NTIA said.

The NTIA will work with Congress and President-elect Barack Obama's administration to "ensure everyone is prepared for the transition and no one is left in the dark," acting NTIA Administrator Meredith Attwell Baker said in a statement.

Converter boxes cost between $40 and $80, according to the NTIA.

The Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act, passed by Congress in 2005, requires TV stations to move out of analog spectrum and move to all-digital broadcasts on Feb. 17. Much of the freed-up spectrum was sold by the Federal Communications Commission in an auction that ended in early 2008. That spectrum, in the 700 MHz band, is some of the best spectrum available for long-range wireless broadband services, many experts say.

Part of the 700 MHz spectrum was supposed to go toward a nationwide broadband network shared by commercial users and public-safety agencies such as police and fire departments. But that auction didn't raise the minimum price required by the FCC, and the agency has yet to come up with an alternative plan.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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