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Digital TV converters a hassle to come by

The magical little converter box that is supposed to work when television stations switch their broadcasting from analog to digital has become a scarce commodity.

The magical little converter box that is supposed to work when television stations switch their broadcasting from analog to digital has become a scarce commodity.

"They put the horse way before the cart," said Tom Lundberg, engineering manager for Lakeland Public Television.

While broadcasters have been worrying about consumer education and some in Congress are fretting over possible mismanagement of a billion-dollar coupon program, consumers are finding the converters are just plain hard to get.

Congress has mandated the switchover to digital by Feb. 17, 2009. Televisions connected to cable or satellite will not be affected, but older analog-only television sets will not receive any television signal after that date without a converter box.

Minnesota ranks third in the nation in the number of analog broadcast-only households. According to the Association of Public Television Stations, 24 percent of households in the state use only analog TVs.

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To ease the transition, Congress appropriated $1.5 billion for a program to distribute $40 coupons to help consumers pay for the converter boxes they will need to continue watching to analog TVs. The boxes are said to typically cost $50 to $80. Each household can order two coupons.

As of July 11, 20 million coupons have been requested and about 5.5 million have been redeemed.

The coupons must be used within 90 days.

That's when consumers run into a brick wall.

Lundberg said the federal government "is basically saying, 'Here's $40. Good luck.'"

The shortage of converter boxes is nationwide, Lundberg said.

Consumers who received their coupons earlier in the year had an easier time using them, but those who waited may still be unable to redeem them at the Wal-Mart Supercenter in Park Rapids.

Park Rapids Pamida is accepting the coupons as down payment on a lay-away for the converters.

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According to Karenlee Carlson, manager of the local Wal-Mart, earlier this year the store had hundreds of the converter boxes in stock and they sold "like crazy."

"We had plenty until May or early June," Carlson said, "and then we got hit really hard. Right now the supply is limited. If we could get more, we would."

Ken Gartner, electronics supervisor for the local Wal-Mart, said initially he ordered 300 of the converters and kept ordering them, but once the first coupons were sent out, consumers took the inventory down to nothing.

He believes manufacturers, predominantly RCA and Magnavox, are not keeping up with the demand and possibly "way underestimated" what the numbers would be.

According to Gartner, the Wal-Mart in Park Rapids is getting from 16 to 32 converters a week. "As fast as I can get them out of the stock room, they're gone," he said. "If we get some in the morning, I'm really surprised if there are any left in the afternoon."

Pamida is offering to use the coupons as a down payment on a layaway for Lasonic brand converters. Betsy Thelen said the system gives headquarters in Omaha a count on how many the local store needs.

"So if you want to use a coupon before it expires, it is the thing to do," she said.

The wait can be up to 30 days.

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Lundberg said the converter boxes are available online for those who have Internet access. He advises being a "smart consumer" and shopping around if that's the choice you make.

Lundberg talks to people daily about the conversion. Lakeland Public TV is serving as an information center for people and helping them with conversions, he said.

Part of the difficulty is every circumstance will be different, he said of questions he is hearing about why the converter boxes don't seem to work once people do bring them home.

The public television station (KAWE/KAWB) has put together a half-hour program about how the digital conversion will work. The next one will air at 7 p.m. Aug. 12.

For more information about the switch to digital in the area, contact Lundberg at 800-292-0922, Ext. 101 or go to

www.lakelandptv.org

For more information about the coupons, call 888-388-2009 or visit www.dtv2009.gov .

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