Spark, Vodafone and Chorus will pay almost NZ$44 million towards this year’s $50 million Telecommunications Development Levy. Let’s call it what it is: a telephone tax.
The Telecommunications Development Levy is an extra tax paid by telecommunications companies. Each company pays a little over one percent of its revenue to subsidise rural broadband and finance other worthy but uncommercial services.
Spark is the biggest contributor. It pays almost $20 million. Vodafone pays almost $14 million and Chorus’ share is around $11 million.
The next two telecommunications companies, 2degrees and CallPlus pay around $3 million and $1.2 million. There are 13 other companies paying the tax. Between them, they pay about $2 million.
Companies have to earn at least $10 million from “telecommunications services” before paying anything.
Government set the Telecommunications Development Levy fund at NZ$50 million. Each of the contributing companies pays a proportion of the total depending on its share of all “qualifying revenue”.
Some of the money raised, NZ$2.6 million this year, pays for the Telecommunications Relay Service. This helps people with hearing problems use telephones.
The government sets a further sum aside for 111 emergency services. It spends the rest of the money on rural broadband.
A tax by any other name
Note how government charges the Telecommunications Development Levy on revenue, not profit.
That would be difficult because as a whole New Zealand’s telecommunications industry barely scrapes a profit.
Last year the five companies paying the lion’s share of the levy made a collective loss. This year the numbers are better, but not much.
Telecommunications is not a high-margin business and requires huge capital investment in infrastructure. Not least in paying the government to use the radio spectrum — which could be regarded as another form of taxation.
In practice companies pass the extra taxes on to telecommunications customers.
There’s an irony here. While telecommunications companies pay extra tax, the companies, one might argue benefit the most from a nationwide broadband network, barely pay any tax.
Google and Facebook earn a king’s ransom selling ads to New Zealanders. Because they claim these sales happen elsewhere in the world the revenue they collect is effectively tax-free.
They wouldn’t be able to earn this tax-free income if it wasn’t for the likes of Spark, Vodafone, Chorus, 2degrees or CallPlus providing the networks. They get a free ride.
Even if the government can’t force these companies to pay their fair share of company tax, perhaps it could include their revenue in the Telecommunications Development Levy and make them pay New Zealand’s telephone tax.