Converter boxes in demand despite June delay for broadcast conversion

Pauline Kirbo Thames
February 10, 2009
Julia H. Richard
February 12, 2009
Pauline Kirbo Thames
February 10, 2009
Julia H. Richard
February 12, 2009

The U.S. House of Representatives voted last Wednesday to push back the Feb. 17 deadline to convert from analog to digital broadcast signals to June 12. The Senate unanimously approved the same bill a week earlier.

While the move gives Americans four more months to get ready, locals have been well prepared, according to electronic retailers.

Most residents have purchased converter boxes and televisions with digital tuners or have upgraded their cable or satellite service packages in anticipation of the switchover. They did so by the end of 2008.

“Our customers came in before the holidays looking for the converter boxes,” said Eric Bonner, manager of the Circuit City store in Houma. “Right now, they’re just looking for good deals on high-definition TVs.”

The government has been helping people make the transition by letting consumers request up to two $40 coupons per home to buy the converter boxes, most of which cost between $40 and $80.

“Sales were at their height when the government started sending out the coupons last summer and into the fall,” Bonner said.

The division of the Commerce Department in charge of administering the coupon program, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, is expected to hit the $1.34 billion limit set by Congress. As many as eight million households are still unprepared for the transition, according to an Associated Press report.

The bill passed by Congress did not provide additional money to continue the coupon program.

“If NTIA receives additional budget authority for the TV Converter Box Coupon Program, our first priority will be to provide coupons for those households currently on the waiting list, as well as maximize further distribution of coupons,” said Acting NTIA Administrator Anna Gomez in a statement.

The March 31 deadline to request converter box coupons will also stay in place unless Congress appropriates money to extend the program.

Americans have requested over 48 million coupons, which must be used within 90 days of being mailed. However, the NTIA only has enough funding to redeem 33.5 million coupons.

So far about 27.8 million coupons have been redeemed, and another 12 million are in circulation but have not been cashed in. About 14 million coupons have expired.

Approximately 40 percent of coupons ordered in Louisiana have been redeemed as of Friday, according to NTIA data.

Statewide, 652,658 coupons have been ordered with 258,497 redeemed.

In the Tri-parishes as of Friday, Lafourche residents have ordered 10,098 and redeemed 4,326 coupons; Terrebonne residents have ordered 8,733 and redeemed 3,256 coupons; St. Mary residents have ordered 3,513 and redeemed 1,288 coupons.

Electronics retailers have been very active in educating the public on the digital television conversion.

“We’ve done grass-roots community-based outreach with the NTIA and hosted the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) in our stores providing customers with materials related to the transition,” said Wendy Dominguez, Radio Shack media relations manager. “We have been working with the American Library Association, doing over 200 demonstrations in libraries on how to hook up your converter box.”

Circuit City has Zenith and Apex brand converter boxes, both for $59.99. Radio Shack sells the Digital Stream converter box with analog pass through for $59.99, which can receive low-power analog channels that will not be switching to digital.

For customers who bought a high definition television and still want to have local analog channels, Bonner insisted they could as long as an antenna is hooked up to it. Analog portable televisions also will not work after June 12. Consumers will have to purchase handheld TVs with a digital tuner to get a reception.

“I know Louisianans take weather preparedness very seriously, and many rely on those portable TVs when the power goes out to get weather updates,” Dominguez said.

Households may apply for coupons online at www.DTV2009. gov, by phone at (1-888-388-2009), via fax at 1-877-388-4632 or by mail to P.O. Box 2000, Portland, OR 97208-2000.

Although the U.S. House of Representatives voted to delay the conversion from analog to digital broadcast signals nationwide until June 12, a number of Tri-parish residents have already purchased converter tuners in anticipation of the switchover. * Photo by KEYON K. JEFF