Monday 19 August 2019

No escape: there's not a home out there that doesn't have a smartphone or television set


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Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

There will be no escape from the new household charge. If you have a phone, you're liable. If you have a TV, you're liable. If you have anything that connects online and shows a video, you're liable.

At least, that is the unmistakable impression the Government is giving from its Broadcasting Bill.

This is very different from previous proposals from the Government. Two years ago, the then communications minister suggested that a replacement for the €160 TV licence would only apply to people with digital screens of at least 11 inches. The plan was unworkable and was scrapped.

Now, Communications Minister Richard Bruton is saying that liability for the charge will be "technology independent".

That means one thing: phones.

A cursory glance about the place makes it clear that we're as likely to watch TV episodes, news and sport on our phones as we are on desktop computers or laptops.

This is exactly the type of TV consumer the new law is designed to cover. One in 10 Irish homes no longer has a traditional TV. But the vast majority of those telly-less apartments or student dorms have a large smartphone, laptop or tablet computer.

Indeed, industry research has consistently placed Ireland near the top of European countries where people watch TV on their phones. This applies across the board, from teenagers to pensioners.

The Government knows this.

"It is clear that due to the nature of technological change and the movement towards digital devices, the design of the TV licence fee will have to change," said Mr Bruton, confirming as much.

Naturally, the Government is terrified of being thought of as introducing a 'new' tax. Indeed, Government sources were insisting last night that the reform of the licence fee should not be labelled a household charge. But let's be honest: it is. How many Irish homes do not have a traditional TV or a smartphone? Are there more than a handful of premises in the country that would pass that test?

The statistics would certainly deem it unlikely. According to the telecoms regulator ComReg, smartphone penetration in Ireland stands at 95pc of all 4.9 million subscriptions. It's a reasonable bet that this 5pc of mobile users who don't have a smartphone (who may be very elderly) do have a TV.

As for traditional tellies, figures from Nielsen say that 1,653,000 Irish households have an active television. Add the one in 10 homes that legally avoid the licence fee (due to no television set) and that's pretty much all the lived-in premises in the country.

So let's be clear that the proposed new fee is effectively a household charge.

And let's remember that this will apply to almost every domestic structure, no matter how remote. If you build a log cabin at the side of the mountain and stay there for a few weeks with your phone and a portable power pack, that cabin will probably be liable for the new charge.

In one sense, this evens the playing field. The vast majority of us pay an annual €160 licence fee. It's a fair bet that most of the ones who legally avoid it - by having a laptop or a monitor instead of a traditional telly - still watch TV. So why should they get a free pass?

"I don't watch RTÉ," is one of the oldest protests against the licence fee. But technically, access to RTÉ has never been a legal basis for a TV licence bill.

Nevertheless, bringing so many new households (or apartments or student dorms or co-living spaces) into the TV household-charge net brings up the issue of what the tax is there for in the first place. And that is where it gets heated.

Most of the €200m-odd collected each year through the licence fee goes to support less than 20pc of what we actually watch, a cause of resentment among a portion of citizens and rival media organisations.

Talk to private sector broadcasters or newspaper publishers and they'll fume at the massive financial advantage bestowed upon RTÉ. These companies also produce journalism but must fight harder to survive against the advertising Death Stars of Google and Facebook.

And yet there is still an argument to be made for publicly funded public service broadcasting. RTÉ produces some fine investigative and current affairs work. In the last few months alone, it has done serious work in exposing dangerous crèches and lifting the lid on the abuse of greyhounds. Best to make this argument and admit it's a household charge.

Irish Independent

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