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PC tax could replace TV licence

Digital Britain 'greatest ever challenge' for BBC, says minister

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The BBC licence fee could eventually be replaced by a tax on having a PC instead of owning a TV, according to a Green Paper delivered this week. The government plans to retain the license fee for at least ten years but ministers are looking ahead to a time when high-speed broadband connections routinely deliver digital television channels to the nation's homes. In that event a fee based on television ownership could become redundant and the government could look at other ways to raise revenue, from subscriptions to taxing other access devices.

In a statement to Parliament this week, Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell said that "the changes in TV technology that will soon result in a wholly digital Britain... perhaps the greatest challenge the BBC has ever faced." The Times reports that a legal loophole means consumers could watch television or listen to radio over the net without having to pay a license fee, leaving the BBC with a funding shortfall that could run into the millions.

A Department for Culture, Media and Sport Green Paper on the BBC's long-term future proposes an end of the traditional license fee and "either a compulsory levy on all households or even on ownership of PCs as well as TVs". It cautions that these fees might be tough to enforce. Ministers are also consulting about the possibility of introducing a subscription model.

The Government reckons changes to the license fee will not be needed until 2017, when the BBC's next royal charter expires. However unnamed sources at the Department for Culture told The Times that the government would act earlier if viewing TV on the net became a hit with consumers. In August 2004, the BBC broadcast video clips from the Olympic Games over the net as an experiment. Six million UK homes currently have broadband connections, a figure that can only grow over time, spurring demand for innovative service like broadcasting over the internet. The majority of UK households will be watching TV over the internet by 2012, regulator Ofcom predicts. ®

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