Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Digital TV Converter Boxes: Order Your Coupons Today!

Like millions of American households, I subscribe to cable television service, but have a single TV set which requires an over-the-air antenna to pick up local channels. In my case, the set is in my kitchen, but it easily could have been a “rabbit eared” set in my basement or garage.

With the pending conversion to digital television on February 17th, all analog television sets which are not connected to a cable or satellite television service will either need to be replaced or the owner will have to purchase a converter box if they want to continue watching television. On February 18, 2009, “Rabbit ears” will not work without a converter box.

PULP is concerned about this conversion because the vast majority of those who do not subscribe to cable or satellite are low income and elderly households. They may have the most questions about the switch to digital television and may have the most difficulty in affording either a digital TV or a converter box. See FCC Orders Telephone Lifeline Providers to Include Digital TV Transition Information in Customer Bills.

Fortunately, there is plenty of concrete information on the official federal government web page and the National Association of Broadcaster’s web page which can help advocates assist their clients with this impending change. I urge everyone to familiarize themselves with the basic concepts of the conversion because, especially for those most at risk of losing their television service, television may be their main connection with the outside world and they will need your help.

Should you choose to keep your existing analog set and purchase a converter box, a coupon program has been established to cut the price on the converter box by $40. All of the details are on the web page. While the process to order the coupons is very straightforward (two coupons are permitted per household), that’s where the easiness ends and the queasiness begins.

Since I need a converter box for my own personal use, I thought I would order a coupon to see what would happen. Completing the simple questionnaire on the web page was a snap, but there are alternative means of ordering as well (by mail and by phone), which I believe are just as useful. Even though I ordered my coupon nearly one year in advance of the transition in March 2008, it took over eight weeks for my coupon to arrive in the mail. When I opened the envelope, I was surprised to find that the coupon looked more like a credit card, including the raised numbers in the center of the plastic card. The paperwork included with the coupon spelled out that the coupon is only good for 90 days and provided a list of local stores in which I could use it to purchase the converter.

I began to search the web sites of the largest electronic retailers in the Albany area (Best Buy, Circuit City, and Radio Shack) to see what was available and to peruse customer reviews to help decide which converter box to purchase. Each store advertised two different brands, all costing about $60. I had read that some converter boxes would only cost $40 so that the coupon would cover the entire price (less taxes), but that was not the case when I was shopping. In order to avoid fraud, the coupons can not be used to purchase the boxes on-line, so I needed to travel to the stores. For persons with mobility difficulties, this could be a problem.

Unfortunately, when I went to the stores, each store was only selling one type of box, even though their web pages had indicated two brands were available. On top of that, every store was sold out of converter boxes -- in mid-June. Actually, Best Buy had a couple of “open box units,” but no sales person even knew where to direct me in the store to find them. I stumbled upon them by myself.

After visiting several stores, I opted to purchase mine from Radio Shack (the local Radio Shack I went to in suburban Albany had already sold over 700 boxes by this time, by the way) because they were willing to order one for me and have it sent to my house at no extra charge. However, due to the complexity of the coupon process, my trusty clerk, barely out of high school, did not complete the transaction properly. After 10 days and no converter box, I contacted the store to inquire about the box. I was told about the foul up, and they were able to arrange to have one ready for pick up in a couple of days.

So, three months after completing my coupon application, I had my converter box hooked up to my kitchen television set. Not only is the picture vastly improved, but instead of receiving six, somewhat grainy channels, I how receive 14 crystal clear channels, including eight “digital subchannels” only possible through the wonders of over-the air digital television. While I can not pick up these stations on my cable TV sets, at the moment they consist primarily of three local weather channels and a vintage TV channel, which seems to broadcast shows not worthy of TV Land or Nick-at-Nite.

After this experience, I can only urge everyone with a need for a converter box to order their coupons now. The number of coupons is limited and they are available on a first-come first-served basis. As the time gets closer to the conversion cut-over, the time to receive the coupons may increase with demand and the shortage of converter boxes may only get worse. Any assistance you can provide to low income families or to the elderly would be greatly appreciated.

Lou Manuta

1 comment:

rs said...

I have been following this matter for some time because I am not willing to pay for cable service, but this is the first time that I have heard that roof top antennas may not be compatible with the converter boxes AND that some TV antennas may not be able to pick up the digital signal in any event! This is therefore
not JUST the simple matter of buying a $50 converter box with a $40 coupon, as everyone has made it sound. This is disturbing and offensive news (and will CERTAINLY impact more profoundly on the
elderly and poor)- that the government is prepared to let us lose that which we have been receiving for free all of our lives: Information over the public air waves. It appears that no one is preparing to challenge this; am I correct? Robin Sparks, Esq.