Taxing the Internet of Things

Flashpoint edition 2: Your business model is changing…is your tax department ready?

As the Internet of Things blurs the line between products and services, taxation may have a bigger impact than many expect. Here are some considerations that should be on every company’s radar.

Tax implications of the Internet of Things

So much has been written about the Internet of Things (IoT) and how it will change our world that it may seem like the topic has been exhausted. Companies that have long sold such products as cars, appliances, industrial equipment, and medical devices are discovering new ways of generating value by embedding sensors and communications capabilities in their offerings. In a profound business model shift, some have started charging subscription-type fees for these “connected” services ranging from monitoring to music streaming.

But hidden in that phrase “business model transformation” there lurks a little-discussed consequence that has the potential to blindside companies that are unprepared: taxation. If a company sells a product, it is taxed in one way. If it sells a service, it is very likely taxed in another. And if what it is selling is deemed to be “telecommunications,” it will be taxed more like a regulated utility—and suddenly what was a relatively straightforward process becomes one that is riddled with complexity.

No company wants tax issues to determine what it sells to customers. Nevertheless, as IoT blurs the line between products and services, taxation may have a bigger impact than many expect. Here are some things that should be on every company’s radar.

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Beyond the box

Companies everywhere are jumping in. They are inventing new ways to add value to “dumb” boxes. This much-discussed business model transformation will make product companies look a lot less like traditional product companies and a lot more like service providers.

Consider a company that manufactures Internet-enabled routers: most computer networks need router equipment to operate. However, today those pieces of equipment are loaded with communications, video, and audio conferencing capabilities, as well as security protocols and all kinds of commercial applications. In the past, the company sold a piece of tangible personal property for a fixed price. Today, that same company sells monthly connectivity services either bundled or separately--which might even include the cost of the router itself.

As these types of services become an increasingly important “value-add” to the equipment itself, what kind of business is the manufacturer in? Has it crossed convincingly into a service business – or even more specifically into a telecommunications business? These are the kinds of questions regulatory and taxing authorities will ask when they audit companies that are seeing increased revenue streams from service and communications-type offerings.

Services are different

Across the globe, economies have become increasingly service-based, and taxation has become considerably more complicated—especially when those services are delivered via the Internet. For example, services are generally taxed where they are provided, not a difficult task when you are a tailor or dry cleaner. But what if the service is a streaming music station that the customer consumes while on a road trip across the United States? What if the service needs to accommodate a consumption-based model (pay for what you use), similar to that of a utility?

Even answering the question “what is the service?” can be less than straightforward, especially when multiple value propositions are packaged into a single offering. Nevertheless, it’s important to be able to answer it because taxing authorities across the country are in the process of rethinking their taxation rules to ensure they are receiving a fair share of the revenues from these bundled, technologically advanced services.

Telecommunications taxes are among the most complicated

One of the hallmarks of the Internet of Things is taking “dumb” products and turning them into devices with interconnected, thinking capabilities that have the ability to communicate. Suddenly those monthly subscription plans start to sound a lot like what phone companies offer. And therein lies the problem.

There are enormous administrative and technology-related costs associated with calculating, tracking, and collecting telecom-related taxes, fees, and surcharges. Some non-telecom companies may be ill-equipped to perform these activities, and some may not recognize the potential issues.

This is murky territory: In the US for instance, some states are still unsure of when companies that offer connectivity-based applications cross the line into providing telecommunications services. What constitutes telecommunications in one state may pass as a more basic service in another. It often requires expensive litigation to finalize the appropriate tax treatment of certain offerings. Crossing the line into telecommunications is something most companies tend to want to avoid.

Design with tax in mind

So what does this all mean? The bottom line is that tax needs to have a seat at the table as new products and services are designed and brought to market—beginning early on in the process.

It is clear that many of tomorrow’s products will contain some level of embedded services and interconnectivity. Companies need to be conscious of what those services are and whether they are likely to be taxed as general services or if there is some possibility that they will trip the wire and fall into the realm of telecommunications. These are questions that make it imperative that companies have access to tax professionals with a sophisticated understanding of service and telecommunications tax issues – knowledge not always resident in product-oriented companies.

If a company designs its offerings with tax in mind, it will have a far better understanding of the tax consequences of its actions—and will be more likely to reap the benefits of a business model that is built around the Internet of Things.

Let's talk

Analyzing the tax ramifications of the Internet of Things is not easy. And without the guidance of a team member who understands both service and telecommunications tax issues, as well as the pressing issues of the industry itself, it may even be difficult to know what questions to ask. But one thing is for sure: Ignoring it won't make the problem go away. We should talk.


Jim Nason
US Tax Telecommunications Sector Leader
Deloitte Tax LLP

Paul Sallomi
US and Global Technology Sector Leader
Deloitte LLP

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