Germany sets computer license fees

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COLOGNE, Germany -- In the face of massive public and industry protest, Germany is set to take the lead in Europe by introducing public broadcasting license fees for personal computers.

Starting in January, German households and companies with Internet-capable PCs will be charged a monthly license fee of €5.5 ($7).

The resulting revenue will be used to offset the cost of producing and adapting public broadcaster programming for the Internet.

The charge will only apply to people or companies that do not already pay the standard €17 ($21.5) a month TV license fee. Most European broadcasters charge citizens this kind of so called "TV tax" to pay for public broadcasting.

The German government has decided to go ahead with a license fee for personal computers despite opposition from grass-roots organizations and industry heavyweights.

Germany's 20 largest employers' associations and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Germany are united in their opposition to the plan, which they argue will stifle the Internet economy in Germany.

Opponents also argue that Germany's public broadcasters don't need the cash. Pubcasters ARD and ZDF received €7.1 billion ($9 billion) in TV license fees last year, more than any other European public broadcaster. In comparison, the BBC took in £3.1 billion ($5.8 billion) in fees.

The new charge will run for one year, after which time German legislators and public broadcasters hope to have a new fee structure in place that will take into account all possible methods of receiving pubcaster programming -- from television sets to mobile phones.

How the license fee system will have to change to adapt to new viewing patterns is a question pubcasters across Europe are struggling with. As public broadcasters invest heavily in new media platforms and begin to make their programming available online, the debate is raging as to who should pay and how.

In many territories, how the issue is resolved could determine the speed at which new media services are adopted and what barriers are put up to entry.

In the U.K., the government has proposed keeping the current, TV-based license fee until 2017 but plans to then replace it with a new, multimedia charge.

But in France, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has come out against any new license fee for PCs, the Internet or "three-play" offers.

Charles Masters in Paris contributed to this report.
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