Government backtracks on plans to charge TV licence fees for smartphones

The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies says that it plans to push forward on changes for TV licences for South Africa – but is specifically excluding smartphones from its list of devices it could potentially charge licence fees for.

In a presentation to parliament this week, the department said that its proposed changes are underscored in a draft White Paper on audiovisuals, which is currently open for public comment until 15 February.

“Issues raised in the draft white paper will broaden the television access definitions, and will strengthen enforcement issues, ” it said.

Currently, a TV licence is only required when purchasing a television which is capable of receiving a broadcast signal. A TV licence is valid for twelve months and renewed at the end of the licensing period.

Under the planned changes, a TV licence would also be required to purchase other electronics, including tablets and computers. The department has also hinted at requiring a TV licence for streaming services such as Netflix.

Some of the devices and services which are being considered under this expanded definition include:

  • Laptops;
  • Tablets;
  • IPTV;
  • Internet;
  • Decoders;
  • Set-top boxes.

Line in the sand? 

Smartphones had previously mooted by the department as one of the devices which will require a TV licence. However, it appears that the government has now backtracked on this idea.

The backtrack follows discussions over the last two months, with the department now agreeing that ‘nowhere would people using mobile phones be charged’.

While the white paper is not official policy – and government could still change its mind again – it appears to have drawn a line in sand specifically on the issue of requiring a TV licence for a smartphone.

This is likely because of the logistics involved in requiring a licence for every smartphone, the impact it will have on poorer South Africans, and possible pushback from mobile operators.

However, legal experts have noted that government does not necessarily need to introduce new laws to include additional devices for TV licences, as the current legislation currently covers a wide enough ambit.

The obligation to obtain a TV licence arises when a person owns and uses a “television set”, says Ian Jacobsberg, director for Corporate, Mergers & Acquisitions, and Competition at Tabacks Attorneys.

“Amongst the minister’s proposals is that the range of devices on which licence fees will be payable should be expanded to include laptops, smartphones and others on which video content can be received and viewed,” he said.

However, Jacobsberg said that this is a bit of a red herring.

The Television Licence Fees regulations published in terms of the Broadcasting Act define a ‘television set’ for which a licence is required, as ‘any apparatus designed or adapted to be capable of receiving transmissions broadcast in the course of a television broadcasting service’ – a definition wide enough to include smartphones, tablets and laptops.

“So, no amendments to the existing legislation actually seem to be necessary to give effect to this idea,” he said.

“However, it does raise a question regarding retailers of these devices, and network service providers who provide the devices as part of a package to subscribers – should they in fact be insisting on seeing every customer’s TV licence before they supply the device?”

Multiplatform provider 

In comment sent to BusinessTech in November 2020, the SABC’s head of TV licences Sylvia Tladi said that changes need to be made to South Africa’s broadcasting regulations to ‘continue effectively serving South Africa’s public interest programming needs’.

She added that the national broadcaster sees itself as a multiplatform content provider that delivers public service content, which includes content gathering, creation, commissioning, curation, packaging and distribution through public service media.

“The proposed amendment to TV licence Fee Regulations is critical to the SABC’s ability to benefit from the opportunities created by the convergence of the media and other technological developments in the broadcasting industry,” she said.

This process is still in the consultation phase and requires more input from various stakeholders, including the public, she said.

“As its mandate is to demonstrate integrity and uphold the country’s democratic pillars, the SABC will keep the participation process transparent and fair, and encourages conversations with all South Africans, including the corporate community who would also be affected by the legislative changes.

“With the tide of technological advances in how we collect, store and disseminate information and stories, so too must the law evolve to regulate this space better and to reflect the current digital landscape we find ourselves in.

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Government backtracks on plans to charge TV licence fees for smartphones