Government runs out of money...for your digital TV converter


The government had intended to help people get ready for the federally mandated transition to digital TV broadcasts. It made your local TV stations nag you about it. And for a while, it has been supplying $40 coupons to defray the cost of the converter box necessary to translate the new signals, which begin on Feb. 17.

Well, guess what? The government project is out of money. Which means it's out of coupons a month before the deadline. Now all the people who had been getting over-the-air, analog signals but who hadn't yet made plans to get their boxes will be forced onto a waiting list until the moment funds are cleared again -- or they'll be forced to go out-of-pocket by as much as $80 to get their own box.

Those of us who have cable TV or satellite dishes (that's 93% of us) are already covered, but there are lots of Americans who aren't. There's no telling how many rural residents, senior citizens, and people without means will find themselves unplugged from their TVs until the budget backlog is cleared up and they can get wired again. People who get analog signals from their apartment buildings may also be out of luck for a little while.

Although the coupons have been available for a year now, unsurprisingly, the rush to obtain them has been biggest for the past six weeks as broadcast stations have gone into overdrive to educate viewers about the upcoming format change. According to the Washington Post, 7.2 million coupons were requested in December, far exceeding the 4 million that were expected.

Congress had originally allocated $1.34 billion to help citizens stay connected though their TVs. Some politicians are working to free up some money to put some more coupons in play, and unredeemed coupons may also go back into circulation to ease some of the pressure.

Procrastination has its penalties. Even when viewers are cleared to receive their coupons, it's going to take six weeks to receive one. Which means that this year might end up being a boon for at least one industry: radio.