The government is likely to change TV licensing laws to address the increasing number of viewers who choose to watch only via the internet, according to the BBC Trust.
In its review of TV licence collection (pdf) this week, the Trust said it was watching closely whether the availability of iPlayer and live streams of BBC channels was prompting households to abandon TV sets in favour of computers.
"Legislative change is likely to be required in order to reflect technology changes in the licence fee regulations," it said.
At present, no licence is required to watch catch-up TV on iPlayer. Live streaming services are covered by the same legislation as broadcast TV, and requires a colour licence, which as of today costs £142.50 anually.
Figures from BARB, which monitors TV viewing for the industry, show only a very small decline in the proportion of households using television sets, from 97.61 per cent to 97.37 per cent in the last year. The Trust noted that the current licence fee collection regime is "heavily reliant" on continued TV use.
TV Licensing, the agency which enforces the law, is currently set up to deal with those avoiding paying to own a television. It works on the assumption that all households have a TV, and sends out officials to check up on those that do not have a licence. A spokesman said it had caught people watching TV online without a licence, but would not say how many.
"It is not yet clear whether households are likely to switch to internet streaming as the sole method of watching television, avoiding the use of a dedicated television set. It is clear, however, that this is happening in some segments," the Trust said.
Monitoring whether viewers were accessing streams without a licence would likely require changes to the regulations, cooperation from ISPs, and significant investment by the BBC.
A spokeswoman for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport said there were no specific plans to change TV licensing legislation to deal with the internet. She said the government was satisfied that the high current high level of TV ownership meant the licensing regime was effective.
The Trust recommended that BBC executives mount a campaign to raise awareness that watching live TV via the internet requires a licence. It noted research showing 40 per cent of students in halls of residence used a laptop as their main way to watch. ®