Senate Commerce Committee Wants Consumer Flexibility on DTV Coupons


The Chairman and ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee want consumers to be able to use their DTV-to-analog converter box coupons to preorder the boxes. They also want viewers whose coupons have expired (they are invalid after three months) to be able to reapply for them.

In a letter to Meredith Attwell Baker, acting head of the National Telecommunications & Information Administration, which administers the coupon program, Committee Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), joined by nine other senators, said that they were concerned that coupons could expire before some boxes were available. (NTIA started sending the coupons out in mid-February, which means the first ones are about to expire). Top House Democrats have also made that request.

As the law reads now, according to a source, it does not allow for either option, although Baker has told concerned legislators she would look into how it might be accomplished.

In addition to allowing viewers to reapply for the coupons--money permitting--they want NTIA to consider "novel approaches," like allowing the coupons to be applied to boxes out-of-stock or not yet available in stores.

Some of the lowest-cost boxes may not be available until early summer, including one by EchoStar, which said it would price its box at $39.99 (coupons are for $40 apiece), but won’t likely have them widely available until June.

In a separate letter, the same senators asked new Federal Trade Commission chairman William Kovacic to keep an eye out for DTV transition fraud. They did not site any particular examples, but said that the DTV transition provides "fertile ground" for criminals to "take advantage of confused or misinformed customers," such as those for whom English is a second language and the elderly.

Somewhat ironically, one of the reasons cited by legislators for putting the 90-day expiration date on the converter boxes was to avoid fraud or a black market in the coupons.