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Nursing homes may get digital TV help

/ Source: The Associated Press

The government wants to expand a coupon program meant to ease the transition to digital television broadcasting to cover nursing home residents and users of post office boxes.

After Feb. 17, 2009, all full-power TV stations in the U.S. are required to stop broadcasting the old analog signal. Anyone who gets programming through an antenna and does not have a newer-model digital TV set will need to buy a box that converts the digital signal to analog.

The government is providing two $40 coupons per household that can be used to buy these boxes. But people who live in nursing homes or whose mailing address is a post office box are not eligible.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration on Thursday will seek public comment on a plan that will remedy the oversight.

The agency has been most concerned about nursing homes, which it says "constitute a vulnerable community that may rely on free, over-the-air television to a greater degree than other members of the public," according to the proposal.

The agency would allow nursing home residents to receive a single coupon. The rules would allow a resident to apply for a coupon on his or her own behalf. If the applicant is incapacitated, a personal representative or someone from the nursing home can apply on their behalf.

NTIA spokesman Todd Sedmak said the agency is working with "more than 220 trusted intermediaries" such as the AARP and other organizations to "to ensure that everyone, including the most vulnerable communities, are aware of what they need to do to make this transition," he said.

Residents who use post office boxes were excluded from the coupon program over concerns about possible fraud. But the agency has reconsidered after learning that "many applicants have sound reasons for utilizing a post office box for mail receipt."

Under the proposed rules, post office box users are required to submit proof of residency to get two coupons. Proof may include a valid driver's license, a utility bill or rental agreement, for example.

Thus far, more than 11.6 million coupons have been requested by more than 6.1 million households, according to the NTIA.

It is not certain how much of a burden the expansion of the program will place on the $1.5 billion coupon program. The proposed rule estimates 420,000 nursing home residents and 340,000 post office box holders will seek coupons.

Sedmak said the agency is "monitoring coupons redeemed and keeping Congress and the administration informed about funding."

The NTIA will allow 45 days for comment on its proposal. The rule change is expected to be implemented by this fall.

Also on Wednesday, Commerce Secretary Carlos M. Gutierrez, who oversees the NTIA, noted that the transition is 300 days away.

"Already, more than 650,000 households have acted by purchasing a converter box and are now experiencing the benefits of digital television with a clearer picture and more programming choices," he said in a prepared statement.

The secretary also warned that the coupons have a 90-day expiration date, and some of them are set to expire at the end of May.