WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Consumers should be able to receive new coupons within weeks to help defray the cost of converter boxes for the nationwide switch to digital television signals, the federal government said on Tuesday.
The mandatory switch to digital TV has been officially postponed by several months to June 12, after the government ran out of budget authority for the $40 coupons earlier this year.
With President Barack Obama’s signature on the nearly $800 billion economic stimulus bill, the government can clear its coupon waiting list of more than 4 million coupons within 2 to 3 weeks of receiving the funds, the National Telecommunications Information Administration said on Tuesday.
With about 1.85 coupons sought per household, about 2.4 million households are waiting, the NTIA said.
The stimulus bill contains tens of millions of dollars needed to restart the coupon program — designed to help consumers pay for electronic boxes that make digital signals usable on analog TVs — for an estimated 10 to 20 million households which have older televisions that won’t work after the switchover.
The coupon problem was a major reason cited by lawmakers and Obama in backing the digital transition delay, which has been years in planning.
The congressionally mandated switch, in which the government auctioned public spectrum for a profit of nearly $20 billion, is intended to free up airwaves for public safety officials, and to improve viewing.
The postponement could benefit cable and satellite companies, which could attract more customers during the extension, according to Stanford Washington Research analyst Paul Gallant.
Beneficiaries are likely to include Comcast Corp, Time Warner Cable, DirecTV Group, EchoStar Corp, Mediacom Communications, and Charter Communications, he said.
Even with the delay, regulations were caught off guard by the number of stations that will start digital-only broadcasting after the old deadline expires this evening.
Major U.S. television networks, including CBS Corp’s CBS, General Electric Co’s NBC and Walt Disney Co’s ABC, vowed last week to continue to transmit TV signals in analog.
But the networks own only about 100 of the 1,800 or so broadcast television stations in the United States, according to an industry group, and 421 already will have stopped broadcasting in analog signals, or will by next week, the Federal Communications Commission said Monday.
In areas where viewers have few to no choices when analog ends, the FCC is requiring the top-four network affiliates to keep at least one analog signal on the air to provide programing that includes, at a minimum, local news and emergency information.
“We are trying to make the best of a difficult situation,” said Michael Copps, the acting chairman of the FCC, the other agency working to carry out the digital transition, on Monday.