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Digital TV Coupons to Dry Up Soon

If you're one of the millions counting on the Government-issued discount voucher for February's digital transition, you may be left in the dark.

According to an article via Reuters, those who procrastinate in getting the coupons for the subsidized converter boxes may have to wait longer than the February 17 deadline. Apparently, the Department of Commerce is being swamped by last-minute requests, and expects the tide to rise even higher in January, thus exceeding supply. With that said, Congress may need to inject additional funds into the program next month to cover the surge of requests.

"Once the obligation ceiling is reached, the program will hold coupon requests until funds from unredeemed coupons become available," said Meredith Attwell Baker, acting assistant secretary for Communications and Information at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration. It is expected that the $40 coupons will reach the $1.34-billion limit of its budgetary authority in the first week of January. Currently the agency is taking in more than 1.5 million requests per week, and if the high demand continues, the agency very well could run out of coupons at the end of January.

The switch over to digital TV transmissions will take place on February 17, 2009, thus freeing up the previously used public airwaves for the FCC to delegate, and will be used mostly for police and fire purposes. A chunk of the airwaves will be sold off in hopes to launch a public internet service. But the biggest problem with the transfer from analog to digital is not in the broadcast metamorphosis, but in getting consumers hooked up and ready to receive the digital information. According to studies, 15 percent of the nation relies on over-the-air analog transmission, thus need the necessary converted box to stay "on air."

Consumers accessing television through cable and satellite services need not worry, but those using antennas will be required to sort through many different converter box models found at Best Buy, Circuit City, Kmart, RadioShack, Sears, Target and even Walmart, ranging in price between $40 and $90 USD (before coupon). Best Buy currently offers three converter boxes: one from Insignia and two from Apex; Walmart only offers two models online.

Will digital television make a difference in quality and performance in comparison to standard analog transmissions? The thing with digital feeds is that there is no in-between fuzziness or interference; either the signal comes in or it doesn't. A weak reception leads to choppy (blocky) video much like streaming feeds online succumbing to high traffic (lag) or a corrupted video file. The picture is impressively sharp, especially when dull outlines have been the norm after viewing analog signals for years and years. But without a HDTV, many consumers may not be able to tell a difference between analog and digital picture quality. Surprisingly enough, some digital TV viewers claim to receive a better, sharper picture despite the lowered resolution in analog sets.

Needless to say, the transition will be well worth the effort whether the receiving device is an old RCA analog TV or a 32 inch Insignia HDTV. If  all goes well, Americans will see a smooth conversion from analog to digital come February, but whether the government will be able to handle the huge volume of coupon requests is a big question. Hopefully, Congress will pass that much-needed funding in January before the well runs dry and viewers are left in the dark when analog lights go out on February 17.