The Converter-Box Coupon Czar

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You may have never heard of Meredith Atwell Baker, former deputy assistant secretary at the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), but she is in the digital hot seat. As acting assistant secretary for communications and information, it's her responsibility to administer the distribution of millions of $40 coupons the government will issue to consumers to be used toward the purchase of DTV-to-analog converter boxes.

She stepped into the breach just after Thanksgiving, following the abrupt departure of John Kneuer.

The coupon program begins officially on Jan. 1, but NTIA won't even start mailing out the coupons until Feb. 17. That's exactly one year before the last day of analog transmission. U.S. television goes all-digital on Feb. 18, 2009. In an interview with B&C's John Eggerton, Baker explains why she thinks that despite criticism by others, the DTV transition plan will work.

What do viewers need to know about this transition?

They need to know that between Jan. 1 and March 31, households can apply for two $40 coupons online at www.dtv2009.gov, that they can apply by phone at 1-888-DTV-2009, and that they can apply by mail. The word to get out now is that there is a big change in television coming on Feb. 18, 2009, and people who have old televisions who receive free over-the-air broadcasting, which means they are not hooked up to cable or satellite or another pay-TV service, have to make a decision.

They have three choices. They can buy a new TV that's digital, they can subscribe to cable or satellite or another service, or they can buy a converter box. Otherwise, their television won't work.

Since participation by retailers is voluntary, are you concerned that there will be converter boxes available by Feb. 17?

We have had extensive conversations with retailers, and we are comfortable with the date of Feb. 17.

A GAO report on the state of the DTV transition was critical of the process, saying there is no comprehensive plan. True?

I think we do have a comprehensive plan. The GAO finished its fact-finding in August. We didn't even sign our contract with IBM [which will have day-to-day responsibility to administer the coupon program] until Aug. 15. I think we have made significant and substantial progress since then. We are looking forward to making this transition happen in a timely fashion.

Congress has made the first $990 million in coupons available to anyone, with a second $510 million, if needed, for homes with only analog, over-the-air TV service. If most of the initial outlay goes to tech-savvy multichannel homes with a third or fourth set not hooked up to satellite or cable, is there enough money to cover the analog in that last $510 million?

We think there will be enough money for all affected people to receive a coupon.

How will you guard against retailers trying to “upsell” customers to buy a digital set instead of just getting the converter box?

We are certifying our retailers and we will be monitoring their participation. We will certainly have folks who will go to stores and see where the boxes are displayed to make sure they are appropriately describing our coupon program.

Explain eligibility rules. I understand, for example, that senior citizens in nursing homes can't get a box.

We used the census definition of a household because the coupons have to be mailed. The only caveat is that you can use a P.O. box, which was designed with tribal nations and Alaska native villages in mind. In nursing homes, or if it is a hospital-type setting and they don't have a separate mailing address, then technically they are not eligible for a coupon. But we're working to find a solution. How many nursing homes are not hooked up to cable or satellite? We're still working on finding out.

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