The federal government doesn't usually give things away, but as of Jan. 1, broadcast-TV watchers can apply for a gift that could keep their...

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WASHINGTON — The federal government doesn’t usually give things away, but as of Jan. 1, broadcast-TV watchers can apply for a gift that could keep their sets from going dark in 2009.

Via a toll-free hotline and Web site, the Commerce Department will begin accepting applications for coupons worth $40 off a no-frills converter box to allow older televisions to receive digital broadcast signals.

“We are open for business,” said Bart Forbes, a spokesman for the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), the agency running the program.

The $1.5 billion program is designed to help ease the major change coming Feb. 17, 2009. That’s when broadcast-TV stations turn off their analog signals and start transmitting only in digital.

The biggest change in broadcast TV since the advent of color will free up valuable airwaves for public-safety agencies and for new wireless phone and Internet services.

It will also deliver clearer pictures and additional broadcast channels for people who don’t have pay TV.

But TV sets without a built-in digital tuner will no longer be able to receive over-the-air signals unless they have a special box to change the signals back to analog.

Those boxes are expected to be available starting next month at more than 14,000 government-certified retail outlets, including Best Buy, Circuit City, Radio Shack, Sears, Target and Wal-Mart. They cost $59.95 to $69.95.

Satellite and cable customers won’t need converter boxes for TVs hooked up to those systems. But there are as many as 26 million households that only receive over-the-air TV and millions more that may want the option during emergencies or power outages when cable and satellite transmissions are down.

That’s the reason Eric Matsuoka, of Montebello, Calif., plans to get a coupon even though he has cable service.

“You’re not thinking of just your immediate comfort zone, just watching television — you’ve got to think in case something happens.”

The NTIA has contracted with IBM to run the program.

Each household is eligible for two coupons, regardless of whether it has cable or satellite service. After the first $890 million worth of coupons are distributed, the government will allocate $450 million more in coupons, but only to households that rely on over-the-air signals.

The rest of the program’s $1.5 billion price tag is for administrative costs.

While there is enough money for 33.5 million coupons, the National Association of Broadcasters has estimated there are as many as 70 million TVs hooked up to antennas, including extra sets in homes with cable or satellite.

The federal law that mandates the digital conversion required NTIA to start offering coupons Jan. 1. But officials are urging people to wait because the coupons will expire 90 days after they are issued.

“We want to make sure that folks have the time to go in and redeem the coupon during that time period,” Forbes said.

He urged people to check their local stores and see what boxes are available before applying.

The agency has certified 11 brands of converter boxes from eight different manufacturers, including Zenith and Magnavox, as eligible for the program.

To keep the cost down, the government is certifying only boxes with limited capabilities, not with other functions such as digital video recorders or DVD players.

The NTIA won’t mail out the coupons until the boxes are in stores, Forbes said.

A public-awareness campaign will begin in mid-February, one year before broadcasters switch off their signals and around the time some converter boxes will be available.