Analysis: A tax on mobile phones in Papua New Guinea?


The government of Papua New Guinea is considering imposing a mobile phone tax, in order to generate revenue. Amanda H. A. Watson and Rohan Fox examine the proposed measure and its potential impacts.

In the 2019 budget handed down late last year, the PNG government suggested that it would use 2019 to look into the possibility of introducing a ‘turnover tax’ on mobile telecommunication companies.

It outlined two reasons for this: that these companies were making above average profits, and that complex pricing schemes in the sector made it difficult for the Internal Revenue Commission (IRC) to adequately assess and audit them.

Multinational companies can use complex pricing schemes such as transfer pricing to shift profits offshore. In the mobile telecommunication space in PNG, Digicel holds an effective monopoly—It has 92 per cent of market share and is the only network that covers rural and remote locations. There appears to be no publicly available information on how much, if any, company tax Digicel pays.

‘New taxes, such as the turnover tax on telecommunication companies, would improve the current budget situation by creating revenue.’

Turnover includes most income, but excludes income not directly related to running the business, like interest. Turnover is relatively easy for the IRC to track. Additionally, there have been several recent years of poor growth and economic hardship—revenues have fallen consistently since 2013, as have employment and government spending on public services. There is also a large amount of debt to repay in coming years, and spending has already been cut substantially.

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Pros and cons

New taxes, such as the turnover tax on telecommunication companies, would improve the current budget situation by creating revenue.

However, turnover taxes encourage companies to do as much as possible in-house. Instead of outsourcing a service to a local business (which would involve a taxable transaction), companies have an incentive to create a new department within the company to do it. This might be more expensive to run, but cheaper overall than paying the tax.

‘The effect of introducing a telecommunication tax in PNG could be that increased costs would be passed on to consumers and these costs may be prohibitive.’

Telecommunication companies may also be less inclined to expand their services and/or networks if their profits are reduced by new taxation obligations. In 2018, Nissan Island had no mobile coverage following a lightning strike damage to a tower. A sector-specific tax may decrease the likelihood of a tower being fixed in a timely manner, leaving people without communication.

In countries like PNG, where a very large portion of the economy is informal and does not produce tax returns and resources at the IRC are lower than in developed countries, ease of enforcement of tax collection can be a vital issue.

In the 2019 budget, the government explicitly references Kenya, Gabon and Uganda as countries that have introduced telecommunication sector taxes. In the case of Kenya, this tax was removed in its most recent budget.

The PNG government also states that its intention is not to reduce the amount of phone calls or text messages. Nonetheless, when Gabon imposed an excise on incoming international calls, call volume dropped substantially. Uganda introduced an excise on domestic calls and analysis suggests that this decreased the number of minutes of phone usage.

Sin taxes

As well as exploring the option of a telecommunication tax, the PNG government is considering the introduction of a tax on sugared drinks.

Known as ‘sin taxes’, such taxes are often intended to reduce consumption of a product with negative health and/or social effects.

According to KPMG, a possible excise duty on sugar sweetened beverages such as soft drinks ‘is aimed at increasing the health of the population’. In other words, if the drinks cost more, people will buy them less often, therefore becoming healthier due to lower levels of sugars in their diets.

‘The effect of introducing a telecommunication tax in PNG could be that increased costs would be passed on to consumers’

It seems logical then that, if a tax is also introduced in the telecommunication sphere, companies could pass the cost on to consumers, who might then use telecommunication services less often. In PNG, the majority of people live in rural areas. For these people, mobile phones are often the only available method of communication. Such devices play important roles during urgent situations, such as medical emergencies and disaster warnings.

The effect of introducing a telecommunication tax in PNG could be that increased costs would be passed on to consumers and these costs may be prohibitive.

Nonetheless, these two sectors might have a key difference. There may be reasonable competition between companies supplying sugared drinks in PNG, and hence a tax would drive prices up at retail outlets. For reasons outlined before, Digicel’s effective monopoly may reduce this effect.


A telecommunication sector-specific tax is likely to have both benefits in terms of revenue generation, and negatives in various forms.

Ease of enforcement of a turnover tax may make it an appealing tool for the PNG government to employ. However, there are concerns around negative impacts. At this stage, there isn’t enough information to determine whether the introduction of a turnover tax in PNG is a good idea.

A first step should be revelation of the corporate income tax paid by Digicel. Resource companies voluntarily provide information about their corporate tax payments in PNG through the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative. Digicel should do the same. Until it does—or alternatively, until the government releases this information—the suspicion will remain that Digicel is not paying any corporate tax in PNG, and the push will continue for alternative ways to tax Digicel’s monopoly profits.

This is an edited version of a story first published in Devpolicy Blog. The authors are Amanda H.A. Watson and Rohan Fox.


  1. Dante Kapi says

    The Gov’t is indirectly taxing the consumers. Lacking innovation. We are a third world country with very low employment and income generation levels and middle class. I’m just saying the negatives outweigh the alternative of income generation through this tax initiative in the long run. If we have an active competition in the mobile phone sector in the country (B Mobile should obviously step up rather the Gov’t.) dropping service charges and using this as a tax alternative would ease the load on the consumers.

  2. Yes, we hear this all the time; ” it is all about generating the revenue.” But whose revenue really? More research is needed about the negative implications concerning “turnover tax.” In the end, it’s the small to medium size businesses and the small people on the streets and villagers who will be digging deeper into their pockets due to the cascading effects of turnover tax. Regardless, there will always be few winners and more headaches for the most vulnerable businesses and individual citizens.

  3. Jonathan Demah says

    The Government should also come clean on how much money Telikom is making. It seems part of their dilema is that their own telco is not making money despite the monopoly it has on a lot of telecommunication infrastructure in the country.

    If Digicel is to provide data on the amount of tax that it has been paying, then Telikom should also do the same.

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