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Will TV Go Digital on February 17? Stay Tuned

After more than a year of round-the-clock, nearly etched-in-stone reminders that the digital television transition will occur on February 17, the much-anticipated DTV switch may be delayed.

That is, depending on whom you ask.

Questions of a possible—though as of yet undetermined—delay began on January 5, when the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced it had reached its $1.34 billion allocation ceiling for the TV converter box coupon. That resulted in the NTIA instituting a first-come, first-served waiting list for people who still want, but hadn’t signed up for, the $40 coupons to help offset the cost of buying a converter box.

Since then, 1.2 million households have gotten on the waiting list, and 1.5 million coupons have been mailed. Nearly 350,000 already-sent coupons expire each week before being redeemed.

On January 8, President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team asked Congress to consider postponing the upcoming DTV switch. In a letter sent to key members of Congress, transition team co-chair John Podesta called funding for the switch “woefully inadequate” and noted that as many as 5 million Americans could lose TV reception if the transition goes on as scheduled.

And now, others are asking for a delay—including New York Governor David Paterson and officials from Spanish-language television stations in Texas and Arizona. However, on Wednesday, 15 House Republicans asked Obama to reverse his stance, warning that a delay would be a “monumental error in judgment.”

The bottom line, so far: “As far as the FCC is concerned, February 17 is the transition date,” says Federal Communications Commission spokeswoman Mary Diamond. “Any change to the date would have to come from Congress.”

The NTIA wants the February 17 transition date to be honored, with no delay. But it is now asking Congress to pass legislation that would provide the agency with another $250 million to speed up distribution of converter box coupons. With the extra money, requested in a January 14 letter, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez says the NTIA could mail 6 million coupons before February 17 and another 3.5 million afterward. Currently, new coupons can be mailed only as coupons that were already issued expire.

No doubt the drama will continue. In the meantime, AARP has been chosen by the FCC as one of 12 organizations to help over-the-air viewers prepare for the DTV transition. AARP will use its sophisticated telephone service center to answer questions and provide technical assistance to members who need help setting up converter boxes and antennas. An 800 number will be provided when the system is operational.

Coupons for converter boxes are gradually becoming available, with the expiration of previously distributed coupons that were never redeemed. To apply for the wait list, visit the DTV coupon website or call 1-888-388-2009 toll-free (deaf callers should dial 1-877-530-2634 toll-free). You will receive a reference number that you should write down to check the status of your order on the website. Signing up on the waiting list entitles qualified households to up to two coupons for the purchase of a converter box, which typically sells for about $80.

But remember, you need the converter box only if you have an older analog TV set that gets its signal via an outdoor antenna or indoor rabbit ears—roughly 14 million U.S. households, according to Nielsen. People who already subscribe to cable or satellite TV or those with a digital-ready TV tuner—which includes most sets sold since 2004 and all sets sold in 2007 or later—will automatically transition to DTV without needing any additional equipment.

Sid Kirchheimer writes about consumer and health issues.

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