Should people who can’t even get broadband be expected to pay extra on their TV licence?
A bitter row is brewing over the likelihood that all homeowners in Ireland will see their TV licence fee raised from €160 to €175.
This is to accommodate the fact that people watch content from the internet on laptops, smartphones and other digital devices.
Ireland has been debating whether people with computers should also pay a TV licence fee for the best part of 20 years now.
The draft proposals for an upcoming Oireachtas Committee on Communications debate on the matter also include a potential “culture tax” that can be levied on internet service providers, according to a report in the Irish Independent.
Proponents of the increase will argue that quality content and journalism needs to be paid for and that an increase in the TV licence to recognise the consumption of content on digital devices is needed.
But it comes at a time when connected consumers are downloading and streaming content from a myriad of sources and not only traditional outlets, such as national and local broadcasters. Some do not even have TVs any more, just broadband connections.
However, is it fair to levy a broadband tax on TV owners when not every household can get quality internet access?
The public are still waiting for the National Broadband Plan to connect the approximately 550,000 homes and businesses in rural areas that require market intervention.
Also, even if you can get broadband or can download content from a mobile network, it is a choice that not every homeowner will make, so why should they pay?
Indeed, a senior civil servant at the Department of Communications, Mark Griffin, told a Dáil Public Accounts Committee meeting on the future of RTÉ that the “TV licence model is broken”.
Not only is it being suggested that the licence fee should increase from €160 to €175, but there is the suggestion that it should be linked with inflation in the future.
There is no doubt that public service broadcasting is a valuable service any civilised nation can provide its people.
There is also no doubt that significant harm has been done to traditional media by the onset of free content and news on smartphones and the rise of pirate media via torrents.
There is concern that unless media is properly funded, broadcasting in Ireland could end up going the direction of Fox News to sate commercial interests.
However, applying a blanket increase on the shoulders of every homeowner, whether they use the internet or not, is not exactly clever. An alternative way should be found.
In the UK for example, a recent increase in the TV licence was made more palatable by the offer of free access to the BBC iPlayer if users submitted their TV licence number.
Or perhaps a levy could be applied to existing broadband fees to support local media? However, there is no guarantee that would be any less popular than a blanket increase.
The reality is, media does need to be paid for.
It is also a reality that the public – spoiled for years by free content on YouTube and elsewhere – needs to appreciate this, too.
But a blanket increase could be a retrograde step and a bitter pill to swallow.