U.S. regulators are unprepared for an expected surge in demand for government help from consumers needing to switch their television sets from analog to digital, a government report said on Tuesday.
Congress ordered the switch, to go into effect next February, to free public airwaves for emergency uses, such as for police and fire departments.
Regulators are offering consumers $40 coupons to help pay for converter boxes, but have no plan to manage an anticipated last-minute frenzy of consumer demand, a congressional watchdog group said.
"A spike in demand for converter box coupons is likely as the transition nears," said Mark Goldstein, director of physical infrastructure at the Government Accountability Office (GAO), told a U.S. House of Representatives subcommittee.
However, the government "has not developed a plan for managing such a spike."
About 15 percent of U.S. households use only analog TV sets and could be at risk of going black on that date if the coupon program does not operate smoothly, GAO said. Up to 35 percent of households have at least one analog TV.
About 14.2 million households have requested 26.7 million coupons, though about 10 million coupons have been redeemed, according to the Commerce Department unit implementing the switch.
Lost or expired coupons may account for unredeemed coupons, said Meredith Baker, a spokeswoman with the Commerce Department's National Telecommunications and Information Administration said. The coupons expire after 90 days.
The agency is asking Congress for fiscal flexibility to distribute the coupons.
The government will not reissue them because of concerns about waste, fraud and abuse, she said, though they can be transferred to friends or family members, Baker said.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin said that during a test in Wilmington, North Carolina last week, just 1 percent of households called the FCC's help line.
"It appears that the residents of Wilmington were generally aware of the early transition and generally prepared for it," Martin said.
Blacks, Hispanics and the elderly are less likely to redeem the coupons, the GAO report said. For example, just 9 percent of the elderly have requested the coupons, compared with about 13 percent nationally.
Rep. Heather Wilson, a New Mexico Republican, said she is worried about her less well-off constituents.
"A lot of people are going to come home the day after this conversion takes place and they are going to wonder what ... happened to their television," she said. "I think it's about time we got our act together."