Retailers to sell TV converter boxes
WASHINGTON - Best Buy Co. Inc., Wal-Mart Stores Inc. and six other retailers will sell equipment enabling owners of analog television sets to continue to view programming after the 2009 nationwide switch to digital broadcasting, the federal government said Tuesday.
Starting Jan. 1, an estimated 13 million to 21 million households that rely on an antenna to watch TV can contact the government to receive two coupons worth $40 each to buy converter boxes.
The $1.5 billion program — which is enough to fund 33.5 million coupons — ends March 31, 2009.
Retailers will begin selling the devices, which translate the digital signal for such TV sets, in mid February.
The other major retailers include Circuit City Stores Inc., Target Corp., Sears Holdings Corp. and its Kmart outlets and RadioShack Corp. Wal-Mart's Sam's Club stores will also sell the devices.
"Over 100 retailers have been certified including a variety of small stores retail chains and these very large retailers," said Meredith Baker, who is the acting administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, which is overseeing the coupon program.
"We have nationwide coverage with over 14,000 brick and mortar stores involved as well as with online participation," she added during a telephone conference with journalists.
Baker added that that the $1.5 billion should be enough to cover all affected households and didn't think the funds would run out.
Several companies — including Digital Stream Technology Inc., LG Electronics Inc. and Royal Philips Electronics NV's Magnavox and Philco operations — have manufactured converter boxes that have been approved by the government. NTIA is expected to certify several more devices in the next few weeks.
The nation's broadcasters on Feb. 17, 2009 will be turning off their analog over-the-air broadcasts. Cable and satellite TV providers said they will ensure their subscribers continue to view programming after the switch.
However, Congress has criticized the government for not having a comprehensive plan to ensure a smooth transition to digital TV.
The Government Accountability Office on Tuesday said the NTIA, Federal Communications Commission and other agencies have made progress in consumer outreach, but challenges still remain. A similar GAO report issued in September echoed the same concerns.
Several organizations have previously said they are concerned that many people, particularly the elderly, the poor and minorities, will be caught off guard when the change occurs.
Tuesday's GAO report also said there was uncertainty regarding retailers' readiness and participation in the converter-box coupon program.
"The GAO contends that simply providing a laundry list of completed regulatory tasks is not the same thing as having a comprehensive plan. I agree," Rep. Ed Markey, D-Mass., who requested the latest GAO report, said in a statement Tuesday.
The agencies can still take "concrete and corrective action," he added.
But Baker said the NTIA has been coordinating with 14 federal agencies, including the FCC, as well as with the private sector to educate consumers about the transition. She said the GAO report was completed in August and didn't include recent progress.
"What we're doing is what Congress has told us to do and we're on target," she said.
Consumers can apply for coupons via phone at 1-888-DTV-2009 or via the government Web site — http://www.DTV2009.gov — starting Jan. 1.