The Department of Communications and Digital Technologies and the SABC want South Africans to pay TV licences for laptops, tablets, DStv decoders, and Netflix subscriptions but have dropped smartphones from the list.

The plan to amend the TV licence definition first emerged in the “Draft White Paper on Audio and Audio-Visual Content Services Policy Framework: A New Vision for South Africa 2020”.

The white paper called for amendments to the TV licence fee section to broaden the definition and collection system for television licences.

It also highlighted the requirement to strengthen enforcement mechanisms and penalties of non-payment of TV licences.

Communications Minister Stella Ndabeni-Abrahams said these amendments were necessary to address the SABC’s financial challenges.

It was initially envisaged that basically all computing devices, including smartphones, will have to carry a TV licence fee.

The Department of Communications has now backtracked on charging people with smartphones TV licence fees.

“Over the last two months, it had been dealing with the matter and had agreed that nowhere would people using mobile phones be charged,” deputy minister Pinky Kekana told parliament.

While smartphone users are off the hook for TV licences, the government and SABC still want people with laptops, tablets, and DStv decoders to pay up.

Sylvia Tladi, head of the SABC’s TV licences division, said they want the Public Broadcasting Policy to be changed to expand the definition of a TV set.

She said the devices which must be included in the definition of a ‘TV set’ or now, a broadcasting device, include laptops, tablets, IPTV, Internet, decoders, and set-top boxes.

“These new devices, which have resulted in new media platforms and content dissemination channels, have a direct impact on TV licence legislation,” she said.

Tladi added that Pay-TV operators like MultiChoice should also hold their subscribers accountable for having a valid television licence before they can purchase a subscription or decoder.

“Submitted regulations also aim to make it obligatory for internet streaming websites to pay a percentage of subscription fees to the SABC, where these websites stream SABC content,” she said.

The full article by the SABC’s Sylvia Tladi on the issue of TV licence fees is provided below.

TV licence regulations should reflect the current digital landscape, by Sylvia Tladi

Sylvia Tladi SABC

From as far back as humankind can be traced, storytelling has always been a powerful tool to capture history. Whether it was cavemen who depicted their rituals through primitive art or cave drawings, or ancient Greek myths and legends that have been told for hundreds of generations, or our own ancestors sitting around a fire sharing stories about the day’s hunt, humans have always enjoyed good content.

Fast forward to modern society, communication today is heavily driven by technology with people fixed to their screens to share the day’s happenings with family or friends, or just to watch their favourite TV drama unwind, or to support their favourite sports teams from the comfort of their homes.

While we have made exponential progress in how we tell and consume stories since the days of sitting around a fire, in the age of satellite frequencies and regulations, legislation, however, has not kept up with the current digital landscape.

The South African digital population, as of January this year, was recorded at 36.54 million internet users, of which 34.93 million were mobile internet users. As the manufacturing costs of mobile devices keep decreasing, data forced to become cheaper, and more South Africans getting connected, these figures will keep mounting.

A digitally connected world leads to greater participation of the masses and offers people more choices as is seen by the surge in connected devices such as laptops; tablets; IPTV; Internet; decoders/set-top boxes, and smartphones are only one part of the equation. These new devices, which have resulted in new media platforms and content dissemination channels, have a direct impact on TV licence legislation.

In this regard, the South African Broadcasting Corporation (SABC) has submitted a review of the Public Broadcasting Policy, which states that to continue effectively serving South Africa’s public interest programming needs, these new devices must be included in the definition of a ‘TV set’ or now, a broadcasting device.

This submission proposes to make amendments to the Broadcasting Act, the Electronic Communications Act (ECA), TV Licence Fee regulations, and other regulations on Sports and Digital Terrestrial Television (DTT). This approach also calls for an overhauled TV Licence fee system and changes to the legislation regarding public funding strategies envisaged by TV Licences.

To ensure maximum compliance with legislative requirements concerning the payment of TV licence fees, the SABC proposes that the Act should place stricter obligations on all relevant stakeholders or role players because the “traditional” television set is no longer the only means of receiving a television broadcast. Therefore, to administer compliance on the payment of licence fees, the SABC is of the view that other entities must be compelled to report on the sale, lease or usage of these “television sets” or viewing devices.

As is currently the case with purchasing a television set, the proposed revised legislation will also motivate Pay-TV operators to hold their subscribers accountable for registering or having a valid television licence before the subscription, purchase or rental of a decoder, is granted. Furthermore, submitted regulations aim to make it obligatory for internet streaming and television streaming websites to pay a percentage of subscription fees to the SABC, where these websites stream SABC content.

The SABC 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.

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