WASHINGTON -- The federal government doesn't usually give things away, but starting today broadcast TV watchers can apply for a gift that could keep their sets from going dark in 2009.
Via a toll-free hot line and Web site, the Commerce Department will begin accepting applications for coupons worth $40 off a no-frills converter box to allow older televisions to receive digital broadcast signals.
"We are open for business Jan. 1," said Bart Forbes, a spokesman for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration, the Commerce Department agency running the program.
The $1.5 billion program is designed to help ease the major change coming Feb. 17, 2009. That's when broadcast TV stations turn off their analog signals and start transmitting only in digital.
The program - the biggest change in broadcast TV since the advent of color - will free up valuable airwaves for public safety agencies and for new wireless phone and Internet services. It will also deliver clearer pictures and additional broadcast channels for people who don't have pay TV service.
But some TV sets might have trouble making the technological leap. Ones without a built-in digital tuner will no longer be able to receive over-the-air signals unless they obtain a special box to change the signals back to analog.
Those boxes are expected to be available starting in February at more than 14,000 government-certified retail outlets, including Best Buy, Circuit City, RadioShack, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart. They cost $59.95 to $69.95.
Satellite and cable customers won't need converter boxes for TVs they have hooked up to those systems. But there are as many as 26 million households in the United States that only receive over-the-air TV - and millions more that may want the option during emergencies or power outages when cable and satellite transmissions are down.
That's the reason Eric Matsuoka, 58, of Montebello, Calif., plans to obtain a converter box coupon even though he has cable service.
"I'm going to apply definitely, for backup," he said. "You're not thinking of just your immediate comfort zone, just watching television - you've got to think in case something happens."
The telecommunications agency has contracted with International Business Machines Corp. to run the program. They have set up a toll-free number, 888-DTV-2009, which is staffed by live operators who can take requests in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and four other languages. Applications can also be filled out online at www.dtv2009.gov.
Each household is eligible for two coupons, regardless of whether it has cable or satellite service. After the first $890 million worth of coupons are distributed, the federal government will allocate an additional $450 million in coupons, but only to households that rely on over-the-air signals. The rest of the program's $1.5 billion price tag is for administrative costs.
While there is enough money for 33.5 million coupons, the National Association of Broadcasters has estimated there are as many as 70 million TVs hooked up to antennas, including extra sets in homes with cable or satellite. Many of those sets can receive only analog signals, although sales of high-definition TVs, which include digital tuners, have soared in the past two years.
The federal law that mandates the digital conversion required NTIA to start offering coupons Jan. 1. But officials are urging people to wait before applying. The coupons will expire 90 days after they are issued to assure they don't go unused.
"We want to make sure that folks have the time to go in and redeem the coupon during that time period," Forbes said. He urged people to check their local stores and see what boxes are available before applying.
The agency has certified 11 brands of converter boxes from eight manufacturers, including Zenith and Magnavox, as eligible for the program. To keep the cost down, the government is certifying only boxes with limited capabilities, not with other functions such as digital video recorders or DVD players. The NTIA won't mail out the coupons until the boxes are in stores, Forbes said.
The NTIA is planning to start a public awareness campaign in mid-February, one year before the broadcasters switch off their signals and around the time some of the converter boxes will be available.
The National Association of Broadcasters, which has been running ads as part of a $698 million public education campaign, will launch new ones next month promoting the coupon program, said Shermaze Ingram, a spokeswoman for the group.
"We're integrating the converter box coupon program into everything we're doing," she said.
The coupon program is a major part of the government's transition to digital television. But many members of Congress have criticized the Bush administration's handling of it.
The Government Accountability Office said in November that there was "no comprehensive plan or strategy to measure progress and results" of the transition.