The U.S. Congress is too badly divided to act on Internet gambling, so individual states will start approving it on their own within the next two years, panelists at a major casino conference predicted Thursday.

Speaking at the East Coast Gaming Congress, casino and political leaders predicted online gambling will become a reality on a state-by-state basis. New Jersey hopes to become the "Silicon Valley of Internet gambling," and its legislature is working on a bill to legalize it.

"Those who think the U.S. government will pass a law, a federal Internet gambling law, that's naive," said Richard Bronson, chairman of US Digital Gaming. "In a Congress that can't agree on what day it is, the thought that they're going to agree to put casino gambling in every living room in America is ridiculous."

He and others at the conference predicted that individual states will pass their own online gambling laws, approving it in much the same way that state lotteries have since they spread to 43 states in the absence of a single national lottery.

"Within the next year, one or two states will do it," Bronson said.

New Jersey hopes to be one of them. Its legislature passed a bill last year that would have made it the first state in America to approve in-state online gambling, but Gov. Chris Christie vetoed it, voicing concerns about its constitutionality and the possible proliferation of illegal computer betting parlors.

Lawmakers are moving toward passing another bill by the end of next month with changes they hope will mollify Christie's concerns.

"We lost a whole year and hundreds of millions of dollars that could have been coming in to our casinos in Atlantic City," said state Sen. Raymond Lesniak.

Bronson said there is a huge potential market for online gambling in the U.S.

"Forty million people visited Las Vegas last year; 40 million people visit Facebook every five days," he said. "Why wouldn't our industry want to take advantage of the bright opportunities facing the casino industry?"

Eugene Johnson, a senior associate with Spectrum Gaming Group, an Atlantic City-area casino consulting firm, said his company has been approached by numerous firms wanting help to position themselves for the eventual legalization of online gambling.

"I can attest to the Internet frenzy," he said. "We've been involved with European operators, U.S. commercial gaming companies, Native American tribes, and state lotteries. It's definitely a matter of when and not if. It is incredibly apparent that within a few years, state-by-state Internet gambling will become a reality in the U.S."

Eamonn Toland, president of the European online betting firm Paddy Power North America, said his company wants in on Internet gambling in America.

"We believe this market will open up," he said. "Whether it's state or federal, there's going to be a tremendous opportunity for land-based operators to partner with the online market."

Johnson called Internet gambling the wave of the future for traditional brick-and-mortar casinos, particularly as their traditional customers age.

"If you walk into a casino in Atlantic City and look at people playing slots, how many young people do you see?" he asked. "Internet gaming is the future of the casino business. It's strongly tied to mobile gaming. Young people are particularly tied to their mobile devices. If you don't evolve with the future, you're going to be left behind."

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Wayne Parry can be reached at http://twitter.com/WayneParryAC