The Commerce Department says it warned us. Digital television is coming on Feb. 17, like it or not, and the department is struggling to get the word out. About 20 percent of American TV watchers will be affected. Remember those $40 vouchers they promised to help people buy converter boxes, if you have an old analog TV, and you get your signal from a rooftop or set-top antenna? Today the government said it’s already used up all the money for them. All $1.34 billion. If you ask for one now, you’ll be put on a waiting list. As you may recall from my previous POST, the National Telecommunications & Information Administration (part of the Commerce Department) had warned in December that the money was running low — but not this low. Apparently, they say, a spate of news stories over the holidays sent people rushing to apply for vouchers (they’re actually plastic cards that work like debit cards). The NTIA says it received 7.2 million applications in December — "a larger number that we ever projected," says Meredith Atwell Baker, acting assistant secretary of the NTIA. She says her office thought it would get 4.3 million requests. They were off by just a tad. The government has information at https://www.dtv2009.gov, or you can call 1-888-388-2009. One catch — as noted by frustrated people commenting before — is that the vouchers expire after 90 days, and only 58-60 percent of people who sent for them have actually been redeeming them so far. That could be good for latecomers. As unused vouchers expire, money will be freed up — forty bucks at a time — for new ones. Still, if you apply today, you probably won’t get a voucher by the Feb. 17 transition. And as for whether electronics stores will have the converter boxes — oh, don’t even ask. The National Association of Broadcasters estimates there are 70 million analog TV sets, still using rabbit ears or rooftop antennae, that will need the set-top boxes…but nobody seems to know for sure. "For those who have not acted, it is important to do so immediately," said Secretary Baker during a teleconference a few minutes ago. "And for all Americans, it is important to help family and friends to ensure that nobody is left in the dark." A few reminders: –If you have cable TV or satellite, you probably don’t need to do anything. –If you have HDTV or another new set with a digital tuner, you probably don’t need to do anything. –If you’re a bookworm, you definitely don’t need to do anything. –Nobody, but nobody, we’re told, will actually need to buy a new TV set — just a converter box if you’re still using your 1955 black-and-white Admiral with rabbit ears on top. "43 days to end of analog broadcasts," says the voucher program’s website. It’s brightly-colored…or ominous, depending on your point of view.