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Tuesday 20 August 2019

Q&A: Who, what and how much: an idiot's guide to the new broadcasting charge


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Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

How will this new broadcasting charge work?

The Government says it will be "device independent", meaning any device that can access television in any way.

What does that mean?

It almost certainly means laptops, tablets and phones.

So anyone with a phone has to pay a TV licence now?

No, the licence fee is per household, not per television (or device). But yes, it looks like if all you have in your apartment or house is a smartphone, you'd be required to pay the charge.

But how will they know which households have phones or laptops?

The Government can't answer this question. Under data protection law, it has very limited means available to detect whether a household currently has a smartphone or iPad accessing TV online. At least with television sets, there is often a satellite dish or TV aerial.

But I don't watch RTÉ. I only watch Netflix and YouTube. Why should I pay this?

The TV licence has never been about proving you watch RTÉ. It has been a blanket assumption that if you have a television that you access, at some stage, content created by RTÉ as the public service broadcaster. The TV licence is as much a social and 'information society' policy tool as a tax on usage.

Then why don't they just make it a household charge or pay for it centrally out of general taxation?

For political reasons, the Government does not want to be seen as bringing in anything called a 'household charge', even if that is essentially what this is. Secondly, successive governments have always been reluctant to tie RTÉ's funding to central Exchequer control, fearing it could lead to a more awkward relationship.

Will there be any legal way to avoid it?

In theory, if you do not have any device in the house that can access an internet TV stream or a terrestrial television service, you may still legally avoid the broadcasting charge. But it's doubtful whether there are many, if any, households in Ireland without a smartphone or a television set. 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.

How much will it cost?

Communications Minister Richard Bruton says there are no current plans to change it from €160.

How will they collect it?

They don't yet know. RTÉ thinks it could be done through utility bills. The Government is preparing a tender contract to crack down on existing fee evaders, so we might have a better idea then.

Why don't they just put a small levy on services like Netflix or smartphones?

We don't know for sure, but it seems that this might be complicated to collect. In the case of a levy on phones, this would also complicate things, making it a per-user charge instead of a per-household charge. This would mean, for example, that a single parent with three teens would pay disproportionately more than a single person living in an apartment.

Who can legally avoid the TV licence at present?

Anyone without a traditional TV set. That's one in 10 households, according to the Government. It would typically include third-level students and young couples living in small apartments.

When is this happening?

Not for five years. The Government is first going to try to cut down on evasion of the current licence fee, which stands at 12pc, and then switch the law to the new system.

Irish Independent

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