Americans worried about losing their television signals when analog goes dead next year now have a new concern: the government-issued coupons for the converter boxes have a short shelf life.
When millions of consumers next week get their two $40 coupons, intended to defray costs of the boxes, they will have three months to buy the new equipment before the coupons expire.
If consumers don't get a converter box when the country's broadcasters complete the digital transition Feb. 18, 2009, they may wind up staring at a blank screen. The coupon program applies only to about 13 million to 21 million owners of the older-model sets that rely on antennas to watch TV.
On Tuesday, 21 House Democrats from the Energy and Commerce Committee on Tuesday urged the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the federal agency overseeing the $1.5 billion coupon program, to extend the program for consumers whose coupons expire.
"For most coupon users the 90-day window will likely suffice, but if consumers are unable to use the coupon in the allotted time, the NTIA should be flexible enough to allow those consumers to reapply for coupons. This move would be consistent with the law and helpful for consumers," said Rep. Edward J. Markey, D-Mass., in a press release.
Markey, who chairs the telecommunications and Internet subcommittee, and his Democratic colleagues addressed their concerns in a letter Tuesday to Meredith Baker, NTIA's acting assistant secretary for communications and information.
She is slated to testify before Markey's subcommittee Wednesday regarding the coupon program and digital TV transition.
"This is an effort to protect consumers from being locked out of the process due to circumstances, which they cannot control," committee spokeswoman Jodi Seth responded in an e-mail.
For example, she said coupons could expire before boxes are available or stores in their area might run out of the equipment.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Best Buy Co. Inc. and Circuit City Stores Inc. have pledged to sell the converter boxes, estimated to cost between $40 and $70. The coupons, which will look like plastic gift cards, are good only for converter box purchases.
The committee wants consumers who reapply for coupons to get an additional 90 days to buy the boxes.
The 90-day provision was added during a markup of the digital TV bill two years ago when Republicans were still in charge, Seth said.
NTIA's final rule on the coupon program says that three months is "reasonable" because it allows plenty of time for consumers to receive and use the coupons.
"The expiration date will encourage consumers to use coupons promptly and will permit NTIA to use funds from expired coupons to issue coupons to other households," according to the rule.
NTIA spokesman Todd Sedmak said Tuesday about 2.5 million consumers have ordered more than 4.8 million coupons so far since Jan. 1 when the program came online.
Lawmakers are tuned into the possibility of transition troubles. On Monday, Democrats also called on President Bush to create an interagency task force to help Americans new to the digital TV age.