According to the Associated Press, the federal government recently made thousands of $40 coupons available to help low-tech television owners buy converter boxes for older TVs that will not work after the switch to digital television in February 2009. The converter boxes are expected to cost between $50 and $70 and will be available in most major electronics retail stores.

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is accepting requests for two $40 coupons per household. Viewers with satellite or cable service will not need a box.

Congress has set aside $1.5 billion for the coupon program, which will fund 33.5 million coupons along with other costs. The first 22 million coupons will go to all households that request them, while the rest are reserved for television owners that do not subscribe to a pay-television service.

The Nielsen Co. estimates that 14.3 million households, about 13 percent of the 112.8 million total television households in the United States, rely solely on over-the-air television broadcasting. NTIA’s Tony Wilhelm said the agency expects the program will have enough coupons to satisfy demand.

“We think the high number will be 26 million,” Wilhelm said. “[The] low end is 10 million.”

Members of Congress have criticized the NTIA and the FCC for their efforts on the transition, and the Government Accountability Office released a report in November 2007 stating there is “no comprehensive plan” for the switch to digital. Most of the concern surrounds public awareness.

While $1.5 billion is set aside for the program, only $5 million is budgeted for education. The Association for Public Television Stations reported in September 2007 that 51 percent of participants surveyed were unaware that the switch to digital television was taking place. The broadcast industry has since announced a voluntary public education campaign, and the FCC is circulating a plan among commissioners that would make public education efforts by broadcasters mandatory.

-Information Inc.