House Members Ask Converter Box Makers, Retailers About Availability

Congress wants answers on how many boxes are in stock and maximum that could be made available

House members heading up DTV transition oversight have asked manufacturers and retailers of DTV-to-analog converter boxes for information on box availability.

In a letter to the companies, a sample of which they posted on the Commerce web site, House Energy & Commerce Committee Chairman Henry Waxman and Communications, Technology & Internet Subcommittee Chairman Rick Boucher pointed to their March 26 oversight hearing and industry estimates that "appear[ed] to underestimate demand if current converter box coupon rates hold."

At the hearing, Gary Shapiro, head of the Consumer Electronics Association said that suppliers had been able to respond "nimbly" to demand but that it would be impossible to predict exactly how many boxes would be needed. But Boucher had been troubled by Shapiro's estimate that 4.2 boxes would be needed between the end of March and June 12, saying his calculation, according to current active coupons, put that figure at at least 5.5 million. Shapiro said that Boucher had more current numbers, but that for CEA to get better information, it might need help from Congress to get around antitrust issues.

Boucher said he would be willing to help out with a letter seeking data from manufacturers, and provided that help in the form of the letter over his and Waxman's signatures.

At that March 26 hearing, Gary Severson from Wal-Mart said he did not anticipate there would be a shortage, saying his company analyzed demand weekly at the store level, and was working with suppliers who were in it for the long haul and had been responsive to demand.

In their letter, Boucher and Waxman sought answers to a bunch of questions by April 24, including how many boxes they have in stock, on order, any plans to place new orders, the maximum number of boxes that could be made available, and whether they think that will be enough.

Shapiro has said that if supply does become an issue, the government should consider allowing the money to be used not just for converter boxes approved by NTIA, but for higher-end boxes, "stripped down" DTV's or cable or satellite service.

Republicans on the committee who opposed moving the date have suggested that the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which oversees the box subsidy coupon program, send those coupons to analog-only households first.

The law changing the DTV date to June 12 also allowed anyone whose coupons had expired to reapply for them, which includes second and third sets in homes with cable or satellite service.