State legislation part 2: VOIP, PEG and student journalism

A few more bills we're watching at the Washington State Legislature:

SB 5628/HB 1585 would prohibit state regulation of Voice over IP (VOIP) service. This is, of course, backed by the telecom companies who argue that, since the federal government is regulating VOIP, it would be too cumbersome for states to regulate it as well. And in 2007, the 8th Circuit Court of Appeals had already ruled that states do not have regulatory authority over VOIP (agreeing with the FCC, which had asserted a unique right to regulate the service).

However, that ruling was based on very limited arguments about the unfeasability of treating VOIP the same as traditional telephone or cell phone service, which have traditionally been subject to state regulation. State regulation of phone service can increase competition, consumer information and consumer rights, as well as providing revenues for state government. And in the future, VOIP may eclipse traditional phone service (just as cell phones are slowly replacing land lines for many consumers).

SB 5241, sponsored by Sen.Eric Oemig, would require cable providers to include public access, educational and government (PEG) channels as part of their lowest-priced service tier. This sounds like a perfectly good idea; in fact I was surprised to hear that this was not already the law. 47 U.S.C. § 543(b)(7) says that “[e]ach cable operator of a cable system shall provide its subscribers a separately available basic service tier…and such service tier “shall . . . consist of . . . [a]ny public, educational, and governmental access programming required by the franchise of the cable system to be provided to subscribers.” Are we talking about sub-basic service tiers? In many cities and counties, at least, cable franchise agreements already do require PEG to be carried on all service tiers.

The bill also calls for measuring PEG viewership, something which is not currently done by ratings services or cable providers. Conventional wisdom is that such a law would be likely to provoke a storm of legal action from cable providers.

Finally, SB 5946, a commonsense bill which would protect the free speech rights of student journalists and their faculty advisers. Last year, this bill passed the House on a party-line vote but was defeated in the Senate after being opposed by the Seattle Times. Rep. Dave Upthegrove has been the principal champion of this legislation for three years now, and if the bill can get through the Senate, it is expected to have little difficulty in the House.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey