DOWNTOWN — Despite months of preparation, local lawmakers are trying to push back the date of the transition to fully digital television channels, saying that millions of Americans are unprepared for the switch.
Congressman Henry Waxman (D-CA), the newly elected head of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, authored a bill to push the date of the transition off until June 12, 2009 because too many people, particularly vulnerable populations like the elderly, will be cut off.
“This is an urgent problem, and delaying the DTV [digital television] transition is a choice of last resort. We have no other option if we are to prevent TVs from going dark for millions of Americans next month,” Waxman said in a statement.
The trouble centers around public confusion about the transition and an under-funded coupon program that was created by Congress to subsidize television converter boxes that allow analog televisions to broadcast digital channels.
The transition to digital channels means that television stations will no longer provide analog broadcasts. Televisions made before 1998, and some made between 1998 and 2004, are capable of receiving analog broadcasts only and require a television converter box to function.
Newer digital televisions use both digital and analog feeds and don’t need a converter box to continue operating after the switch. Cable television is also unaffected, so nobody who has cable needs a converter box.
To facilitate the switch, Congress authorized the TV Converter Box Coupon Program. The program provides up to two coupons per household, worth $40 each, to put toward the purchase of television converter boxes. The devices cost between $40 and $80.
The program is backed by $1.34 billion in federal funds, which provides 33.5 million coupons. Problematically, many people applied for coupons who have digital televisions and cable, not knowing that they would be unaffected by the switch, so people who need the coupons can’t get them.
There is a 2 million person waiting list for coupons. Because of the Anti-Deficiency Act of 2005, new coupons can’t be issued without immediate funds to back them up, so new coupons will only become available once old coupons expire. The coupons have a shelf life of three months before they deactivate.
“There are plenty of coupons, and plenty of funds,” said Bart Forbes, the public affairs specialist for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the government agency that is in charge of the coupon program. “We’re just waiting for them to deactivate.”
If the transition date remains Feb. 17, it is unlikely that sufficient coupons will be freed up to satisfy demand.
“The program is more than a little backed up,” said Karen Lightfoot, Waxman’s spokesperson.
According to Lightfoot, Waxman’s proposed bill would put more money behind the program so new coupons can be issued, send coupons by first class mail instead of third class and change the expiration date to Sept. 15, 2009.
A similar bill proposed by Senator John D. Rockefeller, (D-W.V.), is working its way through the Senate.
For people with coupons, they can be redeemed for government-approved models at stores like RadioShack and Best Buy.
The RadioShack in Santa Monica has seen a major upswing in converter box sales in the past month as Santa Monicans hurry in to prepare for the transition.
“In the past month, demand has gone up 110-120 percent,” said Andre Polacco, the RadioShack store manager. RadioShack sells its model for $59.99.
Santa Monicans seem to be coping with the transition well. According to Kate Vernez, assistant to the city manager, no complaints have been called in. Petula Storey, the director of volunteer services at Wise and Healthy Aging in Santa Monica, also had no problems to report from Wise’s clients.
“Our seniors are pretty savvy when it comes to technology,” Storey said.
More information about the transition and the current coupon program can be found at www.dtv2009.gov.