Gutierrez Urges Congress to Free Up DTV Coupons

Commerce secretary says backlog of coupon requests--and future requests--can be handled without changing DTV date

Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez says almost all the households who have yet to apply for a DTV-to-analog converter box coupon can be accommodated—and the Feb. 17, 2009, DTV transition date preserved—if Congress moves swiftly to free up more coupons to send to the households that have applied for them but remain on a waiting list.

That came in a letter to Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), chairs of the Senate and House Commerce Cmmittees, respectively, in which Gutierrez said a timely transition was crucial to the economy and public safety.

Responding to that letter, ranking House Energy & Commerce member Joe Barton (R-Tex.), who also received a copy, suggested he had crunched the Nielsen numbers and that if the coupons already requested were freed up, that would leave only 200,000 over-the-air households who had not applied.

"The [Gutierrez] letter says that according to Nielsen, in January 2008, there were 14.3 million over-the-air households," said a release sent from Barton's office Thursday. "As of Jan. 13, 2009, more than 13.5 million households who certified themselves as over-the-air reliant had received coupons, meaning approximately 800,000 over-the-air households do not yet have coupons. However, data released in the letter show that of the 1.2 million households on the coupon waiting list, approximately half are over-the-air reliant, leaving roughly 200,000 over-the-air households who have yet to apply for a converter box coupon."

Gutierrez was not asking for extra money for the program, which has been Commerce's consistent stand. He instead asked them to fix an accounting issue that does not allow Commerce's National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA), which has reached its $1.34 billion funding cap on the coupons subsidy program, to send out more coupons until ones already sent have expired and their value--$40 apiece--recovered.

Sources have told B&C that the accounting fix option is already off the table because there is not enough time to get the 2.1 million coupons off the waiting list and into the hands of viewers. Instead, the House and Senate Commerce Committees are working on bills to both raise the funding level and move the date.

Gutierrez's letter, postmarked yesterday, is apparently an effort to convince Congressional Democrats not to give up on that accounting fix, first proposed legislatively in a bill last week by Rep. Ed Markey (D-Mass.). That bill has since been scrapped for the date move/funding increase approach, according to sources

NTIA has all along said it thought there was enough money in the program but began warning back in November that the accounting stipulations related to the funding cap could slow or stop the distribution of coupons in January.