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Francis Leikvoll is pictured Thursday with a television converter box at his Lake Lillian home. Leikvoll is one of many Americans who will have to use a converter box to view television after a federally mandated digital transition goes into effect next month. Tribune photo by Bill Zimmer

Americans scrambling in preparation for U.S. digital TV transition

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nation Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

WILLMAR -- Consumer groups and the president-elect are calling for Congress to take action after a preparation program for the U.S. digital TV transition recently ran out of funding.

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Earlier this week, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration reported it had a hit the $1.34 billion funding ceiling set by Congress to prepare American consumers for the national transition from analog to digital television broadcast.

Since 2005, the NTIA has been distributing up to two $40 coupons per household for consumers needing to purchase digital-to-analog television converters before the madated transition date on Feb. 17.

The NTIA reported Sunday that all of its coupons have been issued and a waiting list for 103,000 coupons has been created. Those on the list will most likely not receive their coupons before the transition date.

On Tuesday, the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights Education Fund held a national conference call to discuss and field questions about the DTV converter coupon program and the next steps for the federally mandated digital transition. Questions were answered by two executives of the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights and a policy analyst for Consumers Union, a nonprofit organization designed to empower consumers to protect themselves in a fair and just marketplace.

"We've made tremendous strides in increasing public awareness of the transition," said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights. "But there are still many communities -- particularly communities of color, the elderly, rural communities, and people with disabilities -- who may not be completely aware of the change or what they need to do."

On Feb. 17, all full-power television stations will turn off their analog signals and broadcast only in digital channels, in accordance with the federal mandate.

Joel Kelsey, a policy analyst for Consumers Union, said Tuesday the federal government made about $20 billion by auctioning off the analog spectrum to public safety communications and companies providing advanced wireless services, such as wireless broadband, to consumers.

As the transition date nears with federal funds tapped out, the Leadership Conference of Civil Rights and Consumers Union are calling for Congress to supply more funding for the DTV converter coupon program. They are also calling on retailers to be guides for low-income consumers and not take advantage of their vulnerability due to the transition.

"Retailers across the nation have the responsibility to stock the lowest priced (converter) box that gives consumers the widest available option between high prices and low prices and quality," Kelsey said in Tuesday's conference call.

On Thursday, President-elect Obama called on Congress to delay the Feb. 17 transition date because of the number of households that won't have digital converters in time.

Mark Loyd, vice president of strategic initiatives of the Leadership Council of Civil Rights, said Tuesday that 40 percent of the converter coupons issued have not been redeemed. New ones will not be issued to NTIA's waiting list until existing coupons are redeemed or expire. According to the NTIA, more than 24 million households have requested more than 46 million coupons.

Loyd said Tuesday that NTIA estimates about 7 million households that rely on analog signals have not applied for the coupons.

Locally, UHF Television Inc. in Willmar also announced earlier this week in a news release that it is starting a membership drive for all current and potential UHF subscribers. UHF Television Inc. is a non-profit organization that has provided ultrahigh-frequency retransmissions of programming from broadcasting stations in the Twin Cities to nearby rural households since 1965. The organization has operated on voluntary membership fees of $50 per year.

According to a previous interview with UHF Television Inc. President Bill Neumann, UHF will not undergo a digital transition for a few years.

-- The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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