NTIA rules to help with transition to digital TV

The Commerce Department today finalized plans for spending up to $1.5 billion to help consumers weather the upcoming transition from analog to digital TV.

Under rules set by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, U.S. households will be able to request up to two coupons worth $40 each toward the purchase of a box to convert digital TV signals to analog so that older sets can continue to receive broadcast programming.

The boxes will be necessary for analog sets to receive over-the-air signals after the switch to digital broadcasting in 2009.

The transition was mandated in 2005. Digital broadcasting should provide better picture quality and expanded programming choices for viewers, but the change is not being made primarily for their benefit. Use of digital broadcasting will free up large chunks of the RF spectrum, which will be made available to public safety organizations. The goal is to use that spectrum for advanced interoperable communications systems for first responders. A Feb. 17, 2009, deadline has been set for the switch.

In February, Commerce entered into a memorandum of understanding with the Homeland Security Department to create and administer a $1 billion grant program for interoperable public safety communications. But more than that could be handed out to consumers over the next couple of years. A pool of $990 million has been appropriated for the initial phase of the coupon program. If that runs out, the Digital Television Transition and Public Safety Act allows for an additional $510 million to be appropriated to complete the program.

Although viewers who receive their TV signals from cable or satellite TV connections will not need the converters, because they already are receiving a digital signal or because the conversion to analog will be done by the service provider, any household will be able to request up to two $40 coupons between Jan. 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009. The coupons will be available through an NTIA Web site, by telephone or by mail. Each coupon can be used toward the purchase of one converter box, which is expected to cost about $50. The coupon will be a plastic mag-stripe card, like a retail gift card, and will be verified from the retailer's point-of-sale terminal through an NTIA database.

If the additional $510 million is appropriated for the program, consumers dipping into that pool will have to certify that they do not have cable or satellite service.

Converter boxes will have to meet technical performance specifications to qualify for the coupon program, and manufacturers must have the boxes certified by NTIA. Retailers must register with NTIA to participate in the program.

About the Author

William Jackson is a Maryland-based freelance writer.

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