The US House of Representatives will debate its wide-ranging telecommunications reform bill as soon as today, when lawmakers will have a chance to vote on a net neutrality amendment, House leaders said.

The telecom bill, sponsored by Representative Joe Barton, is largely focused on allowing telecom carriers to bypass local government franchise requirements when they roll out television over Internet Protocol services in competition with cable TV.

Barton, chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, said on Wednesday he opposes a move to allow a net neutrality amendment prohibiting broadband providers from blocking or impairing competing web content.

Healthy debate seems likely

But Speaker Dennis Hastert, the top-ranking Republican in the House, said Wednesday lawmakers will be able to vote on some form of a net neutrality amendment to Barton's bill. While Barton, a Texas Republican, opposes a net neutrality amendment, Representative James Sensenbrenner has pushed for a net neutrality law.

The House Rules Committee had not yet determined the form of a net neutrality amendment, Hastert said. Under House rules, the Rules Committee decides what amendments can be considered on the House floor.

Christians favour free speech

On Tuesday, the Christian Coalition, a group that has influence among many Republicans, sent a letter to the Rules Committee urging it to allow a net neutrality amendment. "There is nothing to stop the cable and phone companies from not allowing consumers to have access to speech that [providers] do not support," said Roberta Combs, the Christian Coalition's president.

The net neutrality amendment could come from a bill, sponsored by Sensenbrenner, that passed the Judiciary Committee in late May, or it could come from an amendment that failed in Barton's Energy and Commerce Committee in late April, Hastert said. The Sensenbrenner bill would amend local antitrust law by requiring broadband providers to give independent content providers the same speed and quality of service as they have.

But net neutrality advocates have been rejected when trying to push legislation forward in the House this year, Barton said. "I am not an advocate of giving them another bite at the apple," he said.

Before the fact?

Barton has argued that a net neutrality provision isn't needed because there's little evidence of broadband providers blocking content.

Many consumer groups and internet-based companies have criticised the Barton bill, saying it doesn't provide broadband customers strong enough protections against giant broadband carriers blocking or restricting competing web content.

In recent months, broadband providers AT&T and BellSouth have said they've considered business plans that would allow them to charge internet companies an extra fee for faster speeds, with companies not paying the extra fee receiving slower connections.

Broadband providers need new business models to pay for next-generation networks, the providers argue.

The Barton bill says broadband providers should not block or impair competing content, but it would allow the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to investigate blocking abuses only after the fact, and it would prohibit the FCC from creating new net neutrality rules.

The Senate is debating its own broadband bill. The Senate bill is broader than the Barton legislation, but it would also streamline video franchising for telecom providers.