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Price Cartel Talk Masks Malone's Ambition

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NEW YORK (TheStreet) - If AT&T's failed $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile USA raised consumer fears of a telecom duopoly, a similar rumbling is emerging as cable and broadband players like John Malone's Liberty Media , Time Warner Cable , Charter Communications , Cablevision and Cox Communications become the subject of merger rumors.

Mergers among cable and broadband providers could allow firms to finally institute usage based broadband pricing, some speculate, in a move that would hit the pocketbook of the ordinary American. It could also pose a threat to streaming video players such as Netflix , Amazon , Google's YouTube and Hulu.

Such a scenario, while possible, would turn major Obama administration consumer protections from a victory to defeat. It would also be a laughable setback for the nation's communications infrastructure and is increasingly unlikely, according to some industry watchers who, for years, called usage based broadband pricing the "single most important" issue in the cable industry.

Given consumers' rising reliance on their internet service providers for streaming video such as Netflix and the threat it poses to pay-tv earnings, usage based broadband pricing could help cable companies both boost their profit margins and fend off competitors. Hence the rationale for consolidation among regional service providers, according to some analysis.

Apple , Intel and a handful of other tech behemoths are rumored to be on the verge of increasing their presence in the market.

Were internet service providers (ISP's) to eventually charge for usage, it could destroy the business models of streaming players like Netflix and leave ordinary Americans in a refugee status, constrained from accessing 21st century media. Consider that the recent rise of streaming video services comes as consumers shift their consumption away from stretched and expensive wireless networks, onto faster and unlimited services offered by ISP's.

Still, it is exactly what some expect.

Amid reports John Malone may look to acquire Time Warner Cable or Cablevision in a merger, GigaOm founder Om Malik said on Monday those prospective deals had little to do with classic M&A issues such as synergy, growth through consolidation or the calculus of all-stock acquisitions.

Instead, Malik argued consolidation would simply give cable providers the vehicle to finally implement usage based broadband pricing. "We are only on the cusp of seeing a big inflation in internet access costs," Malik wrote.

It is possible. Malone has long spoken of a lack of leadership in the cable industry, a comment some take to mean a lack of pricing discipline on broadband. Meanwhile providers such as Time Warner Cable, years-ago, called usage based broadband pricing "inevitable."

Inevitability, however, has turned to an unlikely scenario, according to Craig Moffett, co-head of independent research firm MoffettNathanson, and a long-time top ranked industry analyst.

"I think it will become clear that over the summer that the window may have already closed for the cable operators to move to a usage based pricing theme," Moffett said in an interview on Tuesday.

For Moffett, it's a big change in expectations. "I've written for years that usage based pricing is the single most important issue in all of TMT. I've always been amazed by how little attention people have always paid to the issue," he said.

If usage based pricing were implemented across the cable industry tomorrow, Moffett said Netflix's subscriber base would immediately fall from 30 million to 10 million. Netflix calls the pricing scheme "anti-competitive."

In a new broadband pricing regime, regulators would have to condone what consumers and competitors would immediately recognize as anti-competitive. Meanwhile, immensely popular content providers such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, YouTube and the like would have to lose a Washington lobbying battle to the interests of cable monopolies, their arcane billing and offshored customer service.

Hollywood and broadcast networks would lose marginal new content buyers such as Netflix. Tablet makers such as Apple, Google, Samsung and Amazon would see the value of their fastest growing products put at risk.

Most importantly, it would be an affront to one of the few clear consumer victories for the Department of Justice (DoJ) in the Obama administration.