The biggest shakeup of US telecommunications laws in a decade has moved a step closer as the House of Representatives passed a bill to ease phone companies' access to the cable television business.

The Communications, Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act would allow telcos such as Verizon and AT&T to obtain national franchises to offer TV services, rather than having to seek approval from each local authority as cable operators must currently do.

Supporters of the bill say it will encourage expansion of broadband because phone and cable providers want to woo customers by bundling voice and video with data service.

Comments the bill's main sponsor, Republican Joe Barton: "The US doesn't even rank in the top ten of the nations of the world in broadband deployment. This bill should change that statistic."

Democrats in the House are less impressed. They fear phone and cable companies will cherry-pick wealthier neighborhoods, eliminating the current requirement by local governments that cable providers also serve poorer and minority areas.

They also argue that the proposed legislation does not go far enough to address the hot issue of 'net neutrality', or how to ensure that telephone, cable and other internet providers do not discriminate against competitors or users by limiting access or charging higher fees.

The Barton bill gives regulator, the Federal Communications Commission, authority to enforce net neutrality principles and set fines of up to $500,000 (€395K; £271K) for violations.

Democrat Edward Markey offered an amendment stating that broadband network providers must not discriminate against or interfere with users' ability to access or offer lawful content.

Opponents, however, argued it would create government regulations controlling the internet and make it more difficult for service providers to invest in new high-speed technology. It was defeated by a wide margin.

The White House said in a statement that it supported the bill and its language on video franchising. But on net neutrality, the administration said the FCC has the power to address potential abuses.

Data sourced from Wall Street Journal Online; additional content by WARC staff