Should we replace the TV licence with an internet tax?

6 Apr 2011

Is Ireland planning to implement a new TV licence regime for laptops and smartphones? Communications Minister Pat Rabbitte TD has made signs that he intends to review the existing regime to include people who watch their TV on multimedia devices.

Rabbitte sparked a debate in the Dail this week with his observation that young people are accessing their TV on devices that, well, aren’t really TVs, and his department intends to get to grips with the extent of this form of TV licence evasion.

A review is under way and there is a possibility the TV licence may be abolished and replaced by a universal household charge similar to the Universal Social Charge ordinary people have been lumped with.

The thinking is that people with broadband connections, smartphones and tablet computers can watch TV on these devices and don’t need to own a TV.

Yes, this is possible. TV3 and the BBC have catch-up TV apps that you can get for your iPhone or iPad. Magnet’s Web TV service can be consumed on your PC, smartphone and tablet computer.

Funding content

However, the new Communications Minister will have to be careful about this. The chances are that if you already have an iPad or an iPhone then you are in an income bracket that means you can afford a TV and most likely you have already paid for a TV licence.

Also, many people who own smartphones or tablet computers use these devices for a variety of other things that don’t actually include watching TV.

So to impose a tax to try and catch these ‘young people’ amounts to little other than an internet tax, which for a country like Ireland, that should be striving to be a leading digital economy rather than a laggard, this would be a retrograde step.

Having already paid €160 for my most recent licence, I (grudgingly) accept that Ireland as a small country has to fund a national broadcaster. But what about the other broadcasters and media institutions that a country requires to function freely? Personally, I resent paying supporting the exorbitant fees that certain RTE stars get paid. WAKE UP! This is not Hollywood! It’s a small country that’s doing its best to get back on its feet. We can no longer sustain overpaid entertainers or civil servants.

Before the elections, I spoke with the former communications minister Eamon Ryan, who called for an end to the current TV licence fee system. He said the TV licence model will be out of date in the next five years in a world where people will watch TV on devices like the iPad. But rather than trying to catch the kids evading TV licences, Ryan suggested we switch away from the licence fee system towards an alternative system based on content consumption aimed at funding growth in newsrooms in a variety of traditional media.

In today’s economy, even paying €160 for a TV licence is a bitter pill to swallow for many people struggling to keep their heads above water. I would support a content charge that supports jobs in local industries, like broadcasting and newspapers.

But a content charge that supports high salaries of so-called stars during a time of economic peril or that could be perceived as an ‘internet tax’ when it is the internet and digital industries that are bringing jobs to this country today? Well, that would be unpalatable.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years