Schools, businesses, and other consumers could end up paying more for videoconferencing, video streaming, voice-over-IP, and other broadband internet services, if plans floated by major telecommunications companies come to pass. The firms’ proposals have sparked a wave of concern that reaches from consumer rights’ groups to members of Congress–with some critics saying the very future of the internet is at stake.

On today’s internet, the traffic cops are blind; they do not look at the data they are directing, and they do not give preferential treatment. But that’s something operators of the internet highway, the major U.S. phone companies, want to change by effectively adding a toll lane: They want to be able to give priority treatment to those who pay to get through faster.

Naturally, consumer advocates and the web companies that would be paying the toll are calling it highway robbery.

“Allowing broadband carriers to control what people see and do online would fundamentally undermine the principles that have made the internet such a success,” Vinton Cerf told a Senate committee recently. Cerf, who played a key role in building the internet, is now the “chief internet evangelist” at Google Inc.

On the internet, information is carried in “packets,” or small chunks of data. An eMail message might be divided into several packets that travel different routes to the destination, much like cars have multiple ways of getting somewhere. The packets might arrive out of order, a few even late, but data can be reassembled to reconstitute the message.

This design grew out of the military’s desire for a network that was both simple and reliable. And as the internet became more widely available, this equal treatment of traffic was part of what made it attractive; individuals, startups, and big corporations were on the same footing.

Now, however, the internet is being used for things the engineers of the 1960s and ’70s could not have envisioned, such as video, telephone calls, and internet games. It doesn’t really matter if an eMail message gets where it is going half a second late, but a half-second’s delay in a phone call is annoying, and a half-second’s delay in a fast-moving game can mean a missed shot.

Thus, the telecommunications companies want to be able to provide “tiered service,” guaranteeing that, for a price, some packets will get to their destination on time. The carriers are under “tremendous pressure” from customers to provide more reliable service, said Shawn White, director of external operations at Keynote Systems Inc., which tracks the performance of web sites and the internet.

Whether they tier their service or not, telecommunications companies need to expand capacity. To do so costs money, and the telecoms argue that internet users will have to pay, one way or another. They say it is preferable that the money come from those who need and are willing to pay for better service, rather than spreading the cost out over all users.

To the opponents of such plans, however, abandoning the “network neutrality” principle opens up the prospect of carriers blocking sites that do not pay up or that compete with the carriers’ own services.

Phone companies say they don’t intend to block anyone’s access or degrade service. “None of the worst scenarios people have painted here can take place, nor are they taking place,” said Jim Cicconi, AT&T Inc.’s senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, adding that the government would stop any such abuse. Also, competition among carriers means they will not want to block sites for fear of losing customers, Cicconi said.

Opponents say that even if toll roads leave the rest of the internet unimpeded, they will stifle innovation.

“The next great idea, the next Google or eBay or Napster or whatever, won’t have the capital to get themselves in the fast lanes right away,” said Ben Scott at Free Press, a nonprofit organization that promotes freedom of speech. “The reason the big eCompanies were so successful was that they started on the same level playing field as everyone else.”

The Federal Communications Commission has supported net neutrality in somewhat hedged terms, leading to calls in Congress for a stronger defense of the principle. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., has introduced legislation that would preserve net neutrality, called the Internet Non-Discrimination Act of 2006. Wyden’s bill would ensure that network operators do not act as gatekeepers by blocking, screening, or discriminating against certain kinds of internet traffic, or creating segmented internet highways for preferred services.

Many consumer rights’ groups have praised the bill, including EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of technology in higher education.

In a letter to Wyden, EDUCAUSE President Brian Hawkins and Internet2 President and CEO Doug Van Houweling said, “The internet has become the most valuable medium for distance learning, scientific research, telemedicine, and many other educational purposes. Broadband internet service allows rural students to take music classes from the best symphony conductors, permits grammar-school students to participate in virtual undersea expeditions, and permits doctors in remote locations to share X-rays and monitor their patients in real time. But the internet can only serve these goals if it remains open and available to all users, educators, and innovators.”

The telephone and cable companies argue against any such law, pointing to the traditionally very light regulation of the internet. “The hands-off policy has given us the flexibility to innovate and respond to consumer demand,” said Kyle McSlarrow, chief executive of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

AT&T’s announcement of its plans to buy BellSouth Corp. for $67 billion, however, might give Congress more reason for pause. If approved, the merger–announced March 5–would create a telecommunications giant with $130 billion in sales and 70 million local phone customers in 22 states.

Free Press’s Scott called the idea of tiered service “very rational behavior” for the industry. But, he added, “rational market behavior doesn’t necessarily mean good public service.”