Giveaway set for digital TV converters
By Jim Puzzanghera | Tribune Newspapers: Los Angeles Times
The federal government doesn't usually give things away, but starting Tuesday broadcast TV watchers can apply for a gift that could keep their sets from going dark in 2009.
Via a toll-free hot line and Web site the Commerce Department will begin accepting applications for coupons worth $40 off a no-frills converter box to allow older televisions to receive digital broadcast signals.
"We are open for business Jan. 1," said Bart Forbes, a spokesman for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Commerce Department agency running the program.
The $1.5 billion program is designed to help ease the major change coming on Feb. 17, 2009. That's when broadcast TV stations turn off their analog signals and start transmitting only in digital.
The program -- the biggest change in broadcast TV since the advent of color -- will free up valuable airwaves for public safety agencies and for new wireless phone and Internet services. It will also deliver clearer pictures and additional broadcast channels for people who don't have pay-TV service.
But some TV sets might have trouble making the technological leap. Ones without a built-in digital tuner will no longer be able to receive over-the-air signals unless owners obtain a special box to change the signals back to analog.
Those boxes are expected to be available starting in February at more than 14,000 government-certified retail outlets, including Best Buy, Circuit City, Radio Shack, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart. They will cost $59.95 to $69.95.
Satellite and cable customers won't need converter boxes for TVs they have hooked up to those systems. But there are as many as 26 million households in the U.S. that only receive over-the-air TV -- and millions more that may want the option during emergencies or power outages when cable and satellite transmissions are down.
That's the reason Eric Matsuoka, 58, of Montebello, Calif., plans to obtain a converter box coupon even though he has cable service. "I'm going to apply definitely, for backup," he said. "You're not thinking of just your immediate comfort zone, just watching television -- you've got to think in case something happens."
The federal agency has contracted with IBM to run the program. They have set up a toll-free number, 888-DTV-2009, which, starting at 5 a.m. CST Tuesday, will be staffed by operators who can take requests in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and four other languages. Applications can also be filled out at http://www.dtv2009.gov .
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