Government's DTV coupon program may run out of money - soon

by Bob Williams, Hear Us Now

We continue to be amazed by the ongoing incompetence and indifference shown by the government agencies and officials in charge of the looming switchover to all digital, over-the-air television broadcasting on February 17th.

Regular readers of Hear Us Now over the past year already know about some of the many mistakes and frequent misinformation that have honeycombed the government’s $1.5 billion program to provide $40 coupons toward the purchase of converter boxes to make older, analog televisions capable of picking up over-the-air digital signals. Under the program, households are eligible to receive two of the $40 coupons that can be applied toward the purchase of converter boxes, which generally range in price from $50 to $150.

In the latest in an ongoing series of eye-rolling developments, the government agency in charge of the digital television converter box coupon program – the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration – said it will likely stop processing coupon requests as early as next week because it expects to run out of money.

Think about that for a minute. NTIA says it will stop processing coupons at the precise moment that consumers will be needing them most – the last few weeks leading up to the digital television switchover.

The sad fact is that the coupon program has already been an abject failure for many consumers.

For some inexplicable reason NTIA put a 90-day expiration date on the coupons. To make matters worse, the agency won’t allow consumers with expired coupons to reapply for new ones.

This was particularly cruel given that NTIA, the Federal Communications Commission and the broadcast industry strongly pushed consumers to order their coupons when the program began last March. Those who heeded that advice discovered there were few, if any, converter boxes available before their coupons expired. This was particularly true in the case of the lower-priced boxes most consumers wanted.

Here is the response one of our readers got from NTIA after he had tried to track down his two coupons which he ordered last March.

Your coupons were mailed on 4/25/08; however your coupons have since expired. By law, we are not able to issue coupon replacements under any circumstances including coupons that were lost during postal delivery. Perhaps a friend or family member who does not need their coupons could pass them along to you. While it is illegal to sell coupons, giving a coupon for free to a family member, friend, or neighbor is not prohibited under Program regulations.

Sincerely,

STEPHANIE GOLDMAN
Consumer Support
TV Converter Box Coupon Program

This is all-too-typical of the way the coupon program has been administered virtually from the beginning.

NTIA officials have repeatedly blamed the program’s problems on Congress, saying the agency has had its hands tied by the legislation that created the coupon program. At the same time NTIA officials have repeatedly told Congress and everyone else that the program was adequately funded and administered wisely.

We really don’t know what to say anymore. It is inexcusable that millions of consumers will likely be left with blank TV screens when the DTV switch occurs, a disproportionate number of who will be elderly or poor – or both.

It is now imperative that Congress step in quickly and provide additional funding and better oversight of the coupon program as soon as it returns to Washington next week. A major government effort will be required to make up for the incompetence and indifference that have defined the coupon program so far.

And it has to happen fast.

article originally published at http://www.consumersunion.org/blogs/hun/2008/12/post_3.html.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey