DTV Converter Boxes to Hit Retail Shelves

The transition to digital broadcasting is freeing up the airwaves that are now being bid on in the spectrum auction.

WASHINGTON - Key players in the nation's transition to digital television rallied Feb. 7 to tout efforts to make sure the 11 percent (about 13.5 million people) of Americans who receive over-the-air broadcasts via analog sets will not be left with a snowy screen in 376 days.

The only things missing were balloons and a dog-and-pony show, although there were plenty of big screen televisions.

As curious shoppers and employees peered from behind a bank of television cameras at a Best Buy store, Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Kevin Martin and officials from the broadcasting, cable and consumer electronics industries announced the first widespread availability of digital converter boxes.

The boxes will allow users to continue receiving television signals on their analog sets after Feb. 18, 2009, when the nation's television stations begin broadcasting in digital. The government is offering $40 coupons with a limit of two per family to defray the cost of the boxes, which are expected to retail for $60 to $70.

Beginning Feb. 17, the boxes will be available at Best Buy, Radio Shack and Wal-Mart. More retailers are expected to offer the converter boxes from various electronics manufacturers. To date, the government has certified 34 different converter boxes offered by manufacturers.

The almost 90 percent of viewers with analog sets connected to cable and those who have already purchased digital television sets are not in jeopardy of losing reception after the transition date.

"Twelve months from now, the nation will make the transition to digital television," Gutierrez said. "With over 4 million coupons requested since the TV Converter Box Coupon program opened on Jan. 1, we are off to a great start."

Jason Oxman, vice president of communications and member relations for the Consumer Electronics Association, said more than 50 percent of U.S. households have already bought digital televisions in advance of the DTV transition. The CEA predicts 32 million digital sets will be shipped in 2008.

"The digital television transition is on time, on track and consumers understand that it is coming next year," Oxman said.

When broadcasters make the switch to digital next year, they will be abandoning the airwaves currently for sale at the FCC's 700MHz auction. Through Feb. 6, the auction had drawn more than $18 billion in bids, exceeding forecasts of $10 billion to $15 billion.

The spectrum for sale is divided into five blocks, with the C block being considered the prime slice of the airwaves capable of supporting a national network. The other four blocks are dedicated to a national public/private safety network and smaller portions for regional and local wireless carriers.

The auction hit a milestone this month when bidding for the C block exceeded $4.6 billion, triggering an FCC requirement that the winner of the spectrum allow network users to connect any legal device and run the software of their choice.