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NTIA Sets Digital TV Converter Coupon Rule

The U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) issued its final rule for a digital-to-analog converter box coupon program that will subsidize the cost of special equipment that some consumers may need to continue receiving television broadcasts, once full-power analog TV broadcasts cease on Feb. 17, 2009.

The final rule establishes the framework for the converter box coupon program and provides guidance for consumers, television converter box manufacturers and retailers regarding eligibility, responsibilities and certifications.

Households using analog televisions will not be able to receive digital broadcasts after Feb. 17, 2009, unless the analog television is connected to a box that converts the digital signal to an analog format, or the analog television is connected to cable or satellite service.

Under the NTIA plan, starting Jan. 1, 2008, all U.S. households will be eligible to request up to two $40 coupons to be used toward the purchase of up to two digital-to-analog converter boxes. Coupons will be issued to qualified applicants until $990 million in initial funding has been exhausted.

Once the initial fund is used up, Congress can authorize spending an additional $510 million to fulfill coupon requests.

However, if the additional funds are needed, eligibility for those coupons will be limited exclusively to over-the- air-only television households, according to NTIA rules.

Consumers requesting coupons from the secondary fund will be required to certify to the NTIA that they do not subscribe to cable, satellite or other pay television services.

“This program is structured to monitor demand to help ensure that over-the-air reliant households will not lose total access to television broadcasts after the Feb. 17, 2009, transition date,” an NTIA statement reads.

“With the coupon program and a successful analog-to-digital transition involving the public, industry and government, the switch from analog to digital television will be completed as planned,” said John Kneuer, Assistant Secretary for Communication and Information.

Under the final rule, eligible households will be able to request coupons from NTIA through “a Web site, over the phone or by mail between Jan. 1, 2008, and March 31, 2009.”

Coupons will be tracked electronically using equipment participating retailers will be required to install. The system uses unique ID numbers to verify each transaction at the retailer’s point of sale terminal through NTIA’s coupon distribution database, the NTIA said.

“Similar to gift cards, this type of coupon will be consumer-friendly and minimize the opportunity for waste, fraud and abuse,” according to a statement on the program.

Eligible converter boxes under the program will have very limited functionality, as outlined in the final rule.

Eligible devices may not provide for “more than simply converting a digital over- the-air television signal (ATSC) for display on an analog television receiver (NTSC). Examples of ineligible devices include integrated video displays, or devices that provide video or audio recording or playback capability such as VCR, DVD, HD DVD or Blu-ray Disc players and others.

Eligible set-top boxes may have composite video and S-video outputs, but may not include jacks for DVI, HDMI, component video (YPbPr); computer video (VGA); USB IEEE-1394 (iLink or Firewire), Ethernet (IEEE-802.3) or Wireless (IEEE-802.11).

Manufacturers may include a programmable universal remote control to operate the equipment and other existing video and audio equipment.

Other permitted features include battery power operation, as well as external AC/DC power, additional cables, the display of additional signal quality information and compliance with energy standards such as the EPA Energy Star program or state regulatory authorities.

Through the joint encouragement of the Consumer Electronics Association, NAB and Association for Maximum Service Televisions (MSTV), manufacturers of eligible converter devices will not be precluded from including optional functions that aid in the reception or navigation of over-the-air programs, such as electronic program guides and “smart antenna” interfaces.

Manufacturers seeking to have their converter boxes certified by NTIA as eligible for purchase with the coupon must follow a technical approval process, including submission of production models and certified testing results for review and possible testing by the FCC.

NTIA will identify certified eligible converter boxes and add the product information to the electronic systems database to tie into retailers’ point of sale terminals.