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Half of digital TV coupons unused

Consumers are snapping up digital converter boxes to keep older televisions working beyond February, but millions nationwide are letting their $40 government-issued coupons expire without spending them.

The government launched a coupon program earlier this year to help subsidize the cost of converter boxes to update older model televisions that tune in analog TV signals from set-top antennas, or so-called "rabbit ears."

As of July 23, nearly 6.7 million coupons - about 278,000 in Florida - have been redeemed to offset the cost of the converter boxes, which generally cost between $50 and $60.

However, that redemption total represents less than half of the number of people who requested coupons and millions have expired without being redeemed.

The Federal Communications Commission demands that local television affiliates must broadcast only digital signals by Feb. 17, so the analog signals previously captured by set-top antennas will no longer be available for TV signals.

The move, the feds say, will free up space for public safety communications such as those by police and fire departments. Some of the available space also will be auctioned to wireless companies that will be able to provide consumers with more advanced services.

People who subscribe to cable or satellite programming won't be affected, at least on those televisions connected to cable boxes or satellite receivers.

However, about 11 percent of households nationwide rely solely on antenna televisions for their television broadcasts.

Roxanne Bates of Fort Myers relies on an antenna TV because she rarely watches television and said it isn't worth the cost of cable or satellite. Still, she said she was looking at her coupon last week and saw that it expired Friday.

"I was able go right out and get one no problem," Bates said.

While the device will be Bates' only connection to tune in to the networks or public television, millions more use antenna televisions as secondary televisions in dens, bedrooms, garages or other rooms.

The coupons - which look like debit cards - are valid for 90 days after being issued and that deadline is tripping up some people who think they don't need to worry about losing their signal until February, said Megan Pollock, spokeswoman for the Consumer Electronics Association.

"I've heard a lot of frustration about the expiration dates, but I think it is really just human nature to set them down and forget about them when they come in the mail," Pollock said.

Elaine Fisher of Fort Myers went shopping for a converter box Monday.

"I'm looking for one for a small portable TV that I have," Fisher said. "I have my coupon, but it is about to expire."

Brian Lucas, a spokesman for Best Buy, said supply of the boxes has generally been good, although supplies got a little thin earlier this month as the company switched from one manufacturer to another for one of the boxes it carries.

"The demand for the converter boxes has been strong and it is growing week to week as people become more aware of the conversion and what their options are," Lucas said.

Consumers aren't guaranteed they will find a box when they go shopping, however.

"We see runs on the boxes in certain regions from time to time for no apparent reason," Lucas said.

The digital television conversion is not related to digital cable, which is upgraded technology for cable customers. Also, digital broadcasting is not directly related to high-definition television. All high-definition broadcasts are digital, but not all digital signals are high-definition.

Pollock, from the Consumer Electronics Association said she expects demand for the digital boxes to continue to grow.

"I think we will definitely see a spike as February gets closer," Pollock said.

If too many people wait to buy, there may not be enough supply to meet a sudden demand, she said.