Cable Households Won't Get Converter Subsidy


Analog-only sets in households that get cable or satellite will not be eligible for government subsidized digital-to-analog converter boxes, according to the National Telecommunications & Information Administration's just-released plan for a converter-box program to ease the switch to digital.

NTIA, which is charged with developing the program, released its plan and asked the public to comment on it.

NTIA said the law setting the hard date for the switch to digital television "indicate[s] that the coupon program is not intended to cover every television in every household in the United States."

Congress set aside up to two, $40 coupons, to help insure that viewers are not disenfranchised when analog sets no longer can receive TV signals--the switchover is currently set for February 2009.

NTIA proposes to distribute the coupons on a first-come, first-served basis until the money allocated for the program runs out--$990,000, with the possibility for an additional $510 million if necessary.

Saying this still might not be enough, NTIA asks for comment on whether there should be some means test, say coupons only going to households below the $19,806 poverty level.

Although NTIA concedes the boxes may cost more than $40, coupons cannot be combined.

Applicants must also certify that they only receive analog signals, and that, if they are applying for two coupons, they have more than one analog set. Applications can be requested via mail, phone, and the Internet.

Coupons will be good for three months, with an expiration date, NTIA proposes and will be handed out between Jan. 1, 2008 and March 31, 2009.

By limiting the window and requiring certification, NTIA is trying to limit the potential for fraud. Noting that Congress has only set aside $5 million for a consumer education campaign, NTIA said it will need a lot of help from industry. "Any public information campaign undertaken by NTIA will only be successful if other stakeholders in the digital-to-analog converter box program contribute significant effort to the production and distribution of this information," NTIA said. 
In a speech last month, John Kneuer, Acting assistant secretary of Commerce for Communications & information for the National Telecommunications & Information Agency, stressed to a Washington media crowd Thursday that the transition to digital would be arguably the biggest communications sea change ever, bigger than the switch to color TV, he said, "with more immediate impact" than anything he had ever experienced in his communications career.

He pointed out, in his speech to the Media Institute in Washington, that Congress has only given NTIA $5 million for a public-education campaign. He told the crowd they knew better than anyone how far that would go, which isn't far, and said the industries whose viewers will be affected have to pitch in big time. He said he welcomes all the help he can get.

Asked whether he could use some of the $100 million directed to administration of the subsidy for that education campaign, he said no, the statute was clear that no more than $5 million could go to education.

Kneuer said he had personal experience with viewers whose signals got suddenly yanked. He said that in another life he had had to try and negotiate a dispute between Disney, who he was working for, and Time Warner over cable carriage in New York. After negotiating "furiously" over a weekend, the ABC signal was pulled. The New York Post and Daily News carried pictures of Mickey Mouse with a line through him, and the New York Times had nuns weeping in the streets over missing Michael J.Fox's farewell to Spin City. "That was one station and one day," he said, "but it was pretty much as if the world had come to an end."

NTIA is the administration's spectrum policy adviser, so one of the questions--from former FCC Chairman James Quello--was NTIA's position on allowing unlicensed wireless devices in the broadcast band, which is part of a massive telecom rewrite bill being marked up Thursday in the Senate Commerce Committee.

Kneuer pointed out that the government had allowed such devices in spectrum used for sensitive defense applications, so he thought the FCC could find a way to make it work in the broadcast band.