Taxes versus tech development: who wins; who loses?

A discussion of the uneasy tension between many governments’ efforts to generate revenue from imposing additional taxies on telecoms/tech-related goods and services, and continued economic and social development of their countries.

 

Without a doubt, many countries worldwide, and especially those in the Caribbean, are strapped for cash. The sectors and industries that used to be major revenues streams are not as lucrative as they used to be. In response, countries need to diversify their economies, develop new revenue streams, and become more competitive. However, in the nearly 10 years since the Global Financial Crisis, realising those imperatives is easier said than done.

On the other hand, and in the last 10 years, the provision and take-up of telecoms services have exploded across the region. With respect to the mobile/cellular segment, for example, most Caribbean countries have subscriber density of at least 90 mobile/cellular subscription for every 100 inhabitants, and frequently, the density is over 100. Hence, collectively, citizens are spending considerable sums on telecoms – both the equipment and services – which suggests that they have some disposable income  to engage in those activities.

In the face of dwindling revenue from traditional sources, and over the past 10 years, increasingly, Caribbean governments have been relying on taxes to compensate for that shortfall. As a result, many countries either have introduced, or are in the process of introducing, some variation of a sales tax (e.g. Value Added Tax (VAT), or General Consumption Tax GCT)), that is payable on a broad range of goods and services, including for those related to   telecoms/technology.  However, increasingly, countries either have levied additional taxes, or have implemented a premium tax, on the telecoms/tech industry. For example,

  • Barbados has imposed a VAT of 17.5% on the supply of goods and services and on the importation of goods, and a National Social Responsibility Levy, is being applied to all imports to the island (with some exceptions for specified industries), at a rate of 10%.
  • Saint Lucia has introduced VAT, which dropped from 15% to 12.5% last year, and is applied on taxable imports, and on taxable goods and services.
  • In Trinidad and Tobago, VAT, currently at a rate of 12.5%, is applied to both goods and services
  • In Jamaica, GCT, at 25% (not the standard 16.5%), is payable on telephone services, telephone instruments and telephone cards, and a Special Telephone Tax of JMD 0.40 per min is payable whilst roaming and for bundled packages; and JMD 0.05 per minute is payable on all calls between local landline numbers.

In having sales taxes and other premium taxes applied to telecoms and ICT/tech related goods and services, it means that everyone – across all segments of the society – who access those good and services, pay the prescribed taxes. However, although Caribbean governments are generating increased revenues from the taxes, which no doubt, help the countries to function, what are some of the wider implications of those measures, especially when premium taxes have been imposed, such as in Barbados and Jamaica?

Less attractive telecoms/tech market

For new and prospective investors, the spending power and behaviour of the proposed customer base is a crucial consideration in determining the most viable products and price mix that would allow the business realise the desired return on investment. Typically, the sales and other taxes governments have imposed are added on top of the price of goods and services, effectively increasing the actual prices/amount paid by customers, and inherently their spending power.

Further the introduction of new taxes, or increasing the rates for existing taxes, can be a challenge for existing businesses. Frequently, those changes are effected with relatively short notice, thereby giving business little time to adjust their business models and strategy. For prospective investors, such an environment may be considered unpredictable, which can be a new businesses.

Stunted infrastructure upgrade

Following from the previous point, the tax burden on the telecoms/ICT industry can also have an impact on the speed at which infrastructure is maintained, upgraded and new technologies are introduced, if the firm are  not generating revenue at the rate that support such investments. Hence although Caribbean governments might be calling for the introduction of fourth generation (4G) or Long Term Evolution (LTE) technologies, for example, the rates of return on investment and the extent to which local consumers can actually afford th those services could be one of the reasons why they have not been introduced in more countries across the region.

Consumers are not able to afford services and devices

Although the additional expense from GCT or VAT, especially at levels of 12.5%, might seem somewhat small, it does add up, and could become prohibitive for those in lower socio-economic brackets. Depending on the strain experienced, customer behaviour tends to change, and either they restrict their spending, or find cheaper (or free) alternatives, which ultimately affects the bottom line of both the product/service providers and governments.

However, there are also implications for the types of devices that customers use – based on how much they can afford. For example, mobile/cellular phone that can only support calls and text messages is considerably cheaper than a smartphone, a tablet or a PC. However, it also means that they do not have internet connectivity, nor access to the wealth of information and services that are available online, and the increased productivity that can be realised.

Slowed pace of digital transformation

Finally, there is a knock-on effect of government taxes on telecoms/tech goods and services on a country’s economic and social development. As we have noted in previous articles, there is a direct connection between broadband Internet penetration and a country’s Gross Domestic Product, “in low- and middle-income countries every 10 percentage point increase in broadband penetration accelerates economic growth by 1.38 percentage points” (World Bank). Further, and to a considerable degree, a country’s ability to harness IT depends upon: the extent to which the enabling environment has been created: its use by all segments of the society; and the resulting social and economic impact (Source: World Economic Forum).

Finally, it is also important to recall that some Caribbean countries have openly stated their desire to become smart cities/smart countries. However, to achieve that goal requires considerable investment in, among other things, infrastructure upgrades and expansion, and fostering a culture among citizens of not only being familiar with technology, but also being innovative and thinking digitally. However, behaviour among citizens is nurtured through direct exposure and frequent use of technology. hence , technology has to move from being considered a novelty, to a tool, that individuals are versed in using, and are prepared to harness.

 

Image credit:  GotCredit (flickr)

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3 Comments

  • My country, Dominica, has International Business Corporations which are entirely tax free. This strongly influenced my ability to persuade my partners to establish our institution there. Strictly speaking we’re an educational institution and not a tech company, but the same setup would potentially be extremely attractive to any business that provides online services to a global audience.

    • Steve, from what I understand, International Business Corporations (IBCs) enjoy benefits that local registered/incorporated businesses cannot access, such as reduced (or no) corporate income taxes, and tax exemptions on imports. However, IBCs may also be limited in the amount of business they can actually conduct in-country, and so tend to operate more offshore… For online businesses, it would be interesting to understand the extent to which Dominica’s IBC framework could accommodate such operations… Anyone…?

      However, going back to the article, the focus was primarily on the sales and other pass through taxes that consumers end up paying. One of the reasons many Caribbean countries, including Dominica, have introduced sales taxes is to widen the pool of people who actually pay/contribute to taxes, beyond those who routinely get tapped via PAYE or personal income tax. Hence, even for an IBC that sells its goods or services on the local market, and provided they fall within the approved categories, those goods and services will most likely be subject to VAT (or GCT).

      • That’s right, the tradeoff is that IBCs typically cannot do business locally. For e-commerce businesses operating in a very small country, that might be an easy call to make, as it was for us.

        Yes, Dominica introduced a controversial VAT some years back. There’s a big danger in that, though, because raising taxes on the most vulnerable people in society in a weak economy can smother baseline economic activity, leading to a “death spiral” of malaise. Prosperous low tax jurisdictions like the Caymans and Bermuda are probably better examples for the rest of us.

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