Feds Unveil Digital TV Conversion Plan

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February 17, 2009, has been marked as the official shut-off date for traditional analog television broadcasts, which means anyone who pulls in their television the old-fashioned way—over the air, rather than via cable, fiber, satellite, or (gosh!) Internet technology—will be left in the dark. To ease the transition to digital television, the Department of Commerce has outlined its plan to subsidize the purchase of digital-to-analog converter boxes so folks who rely on terrestrial television broadcasts will still be able to tune into infomercials at two in the morning. (Oh, and important stuff like news, emergency declarations, and major network shows.)

Beginning January 1, 2008 (and running through March 31, 2009), U.S. households will be eligible to request up to two $40 coupons which can be used to defray the costs of digital-to-analog converters boxes. The coupons (which will actually be gift-card like things with magnetic strips) will be good for 90 days, and can only be used one-to-a-box. (So, no this isn’t a fast way to get $80 off a converter purchase.) Households will be able to request coupons by mail, phone, or via a Web site; consumers must aver they do not subscribe to cable, satellite, or other pay television services which obviate the need for a converter.

“The transition from analog to digital television is a historic change and brings with it considerable benefits for the American consumer,” said Secretary of Commerce Carlos M. Gutierrez, in a statement. “The coupon program is designed to help ease the transition to digital TV. Not only will the transition help expand consumer choices, but more importantly, the digital transition will enable more efficient use of the nation’s airwaves providing new advanced wireless services and increased public safety services for all Americans.”

Some $990 million has been allocated to the program (minus administration costs, of course); if that funding proves insufficient, Congress can increase funding by $510 million.

The plan has been criticized as underfunded; current estimates indicate U.S. households have between 70 and 75 million analog-only televisions in place; of those, it’s estimated about 15 percent of the television-watching population receives programming via analog terrestrial broadcast, rather than pay television services.

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