Comcast Nixed Metered Pricing. But What About Time Warner Cable?

Earlier this week, Comcast Corp. (NSDQ: CMCSA) president Neil Smit stated pretty emphatically it had no plan to institute usage-based broadband pricing. But Time Warner Cable (NYSE: TWC) COO Landel Hobbs seemed to send a distinctly different signal in an appearance Friday on CNBC’s “Squawk Box.”

In a broad-ranging conversation on the future of the cable business, Hobbs had this to say when the subject of “consumption-based billing” came up (or see video below at the 5:50 mark):

“Consumption-based billing is what you’re talking about. I think most products in America…it’s actually good for consumers and good for business if people use more for a product. And typically they pay more. And most products that we’re familiar work that way. Ultimately, I think that could be the way it goes. We don’t necessarily know though. We’re going to watch how the market moves. But I think that you heard the FCC chairman just come out and say he was supportive of consumption-based billing but we’re going to watch it very closely and see where it goes.”

Full steam ahead on usage-based pricing? Hardly. But it’s pretty clear listening to Hobbes tap dance around this third rail that they certainly aren’t prepared to reject it as forcefully as Comcast did. That bolded sentence indicates he thinks UBP is inevitable on some level.

TWC CEO Glenn Britt was at UBS as well this week but somehow avoided this subject entirely. And with good reason, given what a hot potato this has been for the company in the past. In April 2009, TWC had to backtrack on plans to test metered pricing in select markets after getting blasted by a chorus of critics that included members of Congress. But as recently as June, Britt was praising AT&T (NYSE: T) for imposing UBP on wireless broadband and toyed with the possibility of TWC doing same for wireline. “Exactly how it works and what the PR around it will be is something we can talk about,” he told Business Week.

If the FCC manages not to get its proposed network neutrality guidelines obliterated by the Republicans, and the cable operators are free and clear to institute UBP, it’s going to be really interesting to see how they finesse this with the public.