On Monday, broadcasters praised the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) for choosing to not limit the digital-to-analog converter-box subsidy to analog-only households, at least initially.
The NTIA decided to make the coupons initially available to cable or satellite homes that also have analog-only sets.
Given the limit on funding for the programming--it is capped at $1.5 billion--some had argued that the program should only be a lifeline for homes with only analog TV's,. The
. There will also be no means test for elligible households.
But as the rules were approved, the first $1 billion will go to any household. But the other $500 million is available on an as-needed basis. If the extra money is needed, the coupons will be limited to analog-only households, however.
"Sound public policy dictated the boxes be broadly available to consumers," said NTIA head John Kneuer, explaining the decision to apply the first monies to all households.
Broadcaster had argued that all TV's should have access to the boxes, which will allow analog-only sets to receive digital signals after the planned conversion to all-digital broadcasting in February 2009. Kneuer, when pressed, said he did not think that deadline should be moved, though it would depend on a number of factors.
Some powerful Democrats in Congress have recently suggested that the date may have to move, pointing out that while the current head of the administration isn't running for re-election in 2008, they are and don't want to face a viewer revolt if the program/consumer education campaign hasn't done its job of taking care of potentially disenfranchised viewers.
The government will issue coupons, up to two, $40 coupons, redeemable toward the purchase price of approved boxes. The first $1 billion, minus administrative costs, should cover about 22.25 million boxes, with the other $500 million, if needed, covering another 11.25 million boxes, for a total of 33.5 million.
The RFP for the converter boxes will be issued this week, said Kneuer.
Kneuer emphasized in a press conference Monday that the subsidy program was just one of many ways consumer could address the coming transition, with others including being deciding to do nothing with that old second or third analog set, buying a new DTV or HDTV set, hooking up to cable or satellite
According to the groups
, call for minimum performance standards for the boxes and for the FCC to verify that a box meets those minimum standards and is coupon-eligible.
The rules also do not exclude boxes with options, like electronic program guides, from eligibility for the coupons, though the box is still a "baseline" device and eligible boxes will not include DVR or DVD player functionality.
"The NTIA's final DTV rules reflect the appreciation Americans place on having access to free, local television," said NAB President David Rehr in a statement. "The NTIA's digital converter box coupon program, supported by a broad-based consumer education and marketing campaign, will bring tens of millions of viewers into the digital age," he said.
NTIA said it would hold a public forum March 19 to give industry and activist groups a chance to weigh in with questions about the program.
When asked what analog-only viewers who didn't get the boxes of make some other accommodation would see after the Feb. 17, 2009 DTV transition date, Kneuer said whether they say static or a blue screen depended on the set, but what they wouldn't see, he said, was a TV program.
"We applaud the NTIA for including over-the-air television sets in cable and satellite households in the coupon eligibility program," said NAB in a statement. "Going forward, NAB will work with Congress and the administration to ensure that no consumer and no television set is disenfranchised from access to local TV signals."