Rebooted DTV converter box program to replace expired coupons

by Truman Lewis, Consumer Affairs

It might sound like a rerun but the federal government says that this time it really, really has figured out how to help taxpayers make the transition to digital over-the-air television.

With the once-postponed June 12 deadline for the nationwide conversion to digital TV approaching, the program has now started to accept replacement requests from eligible households whose coupons expired without being redeemed. The reason for that, in many cases, was that they were mailed out after their expiration date but that little fact wasn't noted in the government's latest self-congratulatorily effusive announcement.

"This is very good news for Americans who were unable to redeem their coupons before they expired," said Anna Gomez, acting administrator of the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). "With the backlog of applications now eliminated, consumers can apply for coupons and get assistance right away, allowing them to continue to receive important local television news and emergency information by purchasing a converter box at a reduced cost.”

Of course, it's not good news for consumers who have already made the conversion and are finding that they can no longer receive the stations they've come to depend on.

"We live in a remote area on a mountain. We always had great free TV. Only ever needed an indoor antenna, got plenty of channels," said Chris of Cairnbrook, Pa. "So now we have the converter boxes. ... We get only 3 channels and they are either non-viewable with checkerboard appearance and intermittent freezing and no sound, or no signal at all.

"Boy, that surely was worth the money the government made us spend for their bright idea!" Chris said. " We live paycheck to paycheck and don't have money for new TVs or antenna's or satellite. We don't get cable up this mountain. Thanks a lot for taking away another piece of our life. You're on a roll now."

Then there are those for whom the government's belated attempt to get organized simply comes too late.

Jean of Reno, Nev., said her coupon expired before she could find a store that would accept it. "I was refused a replacement coupon and ended up buying a box at full price as one of our stations had already converted and the other two were planning on converting about 10 days later," she told

"The box by the way didn't work, but I am expecting a replacement," she added. "It cost me $40 additional and I still don't have a box."
How to apply

If an eligible household has redeemed one coupon toward the purchase of a TV converter box and the other coupon has expired, then it will be approved for a single replacement coupon, Gomez said.

Consumers may apply for replacement coupons by visiting, calling 1-888-DTV-2009 (1-888-388-2009), mailing an application to P.O. Box 2000, Portland, OR 97208 or faxing an application to 1-877-DTV-4ME2 (1-877-388-4632). Deaf or hard of hearing callers may use 1-877-530-2634 (TTY).

NTIA also claims that the coupon program has eliminated its waiting list and is processing all coupon requests as they come in with a maximum nine-business day turnaround time.

On January 4, 2009, the coupon program ran out of money and placed incoming coupon requests on a waiting list, to be fulfilled as previously issued coupons expired. The economic stimulus bill provided NTIA $650 million to issue at least 12.25 million more coupons, to start mailing coupons via first class mail and to ensure vulnerable populations are prepared for the transition from analog to digital television transmission.

Applications are now being processed on a first come, first served basis while supplies last.

“I urge all consumers who are still unprepared for the transition to act today to get their converter boxes and resolve any technical issues well ahead of the June 12 deadline,” Gomez said, placing the blame for being "unprepared" on citizens whose pleas for help have often been ignored by their government.

Consumers can receive digital television today by purchasing and connecting a TV converter box (with or without a government coupon); buying a digital TV; or subscribing to cable, satellite or another pay service.

Consumers who currently have coupons in hand should use them immediately. The coupons may not be used as a rebate and must be presented to the retailer at the time of purchase.

The DTV Delay Act established June 12, 2009, as the final date by which all full-power television stations in the country will be required to shut down analog broadcasts. However, some stations and entire markets may choose to switch before then. The Federal Communications Commission says that of the nation's nearly 1,800 full-power televisions stations, a total of 641 stations – 36 percent-- terminated their analog signals as of February 17, 2009.

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