Analysis: The odd timing of that Comcast-Apple TV story

March 24, 2014, 5:15 PM UTC

FORTUNE — The Wall Street Journal was getting a lot of echo-chamber play in the tech press Monday for its report that Apple (AAPL) is in talks with Comcast (CCV) about building an Apple TV-type Internet set-top box that would get special treatment on Comcast’s rapidly growing cable network.

Has everybody forgotten what happened last month?

On Feb. 12, the same three-person Journal team reported that Apple was talking to Time Warner Cable (TWC) about putting their programs on Apple TV. The very next day, Comcast announced its $45.2 billion plan to gobble up Time Warner Cable, leading inevitably to speculation that Apple had just been hosed. (See Is Apple TV toast?)

So kudos to GigaOm‘s Janko Roettgers for suggesting that there might be something “fishy” about today’s story.

As the Journal describes it, the service being discussed would give Apple a way to bypass the kind of Web congestion that drove Netflix (NFLX) subscribers crazy last month when too many of them tried to stream the latest episodes of House of Cards at the same time. Netflix’s Reed Hastings reportedly paid Comcast a bandwidth “ransom” to get around the bottleneck and followed up with a call for stronger net neutrality rules. That’s a reference to the principle that carriers with local monopolies (like the cable companies) should treat all data equally.

“But the real issue here is not net neutrality, or at least it’s not the primary issue,” writes Roettgers. “Comcast has been subject to strict conditions about how it deals with competitors ever since it merged with NBC, and chances are, those conditions will be extended and possibly even tightened when the merger with Time Warner Cable goes through.

“Shining a light on managed services just when the severity of these conditions is up for debate seems like a very strange coincidence indeed. It’s almost as if someone said: Hey, here is this big operator that is soon going to own 30 percent of the country’s pipes going into people’s homes, and it wants to strike a special deal with Apple. Shouldn’t regulators make sure that others get the same treatment?”

I have to agree. Somebody is getting played here by the Journal‘s unnamed “people familiar with the matter.” Roettgers’ thinks it may the Journal‘s readers. His conclusion:

“That’s why I don’t believe that we will see a service like the one painted by the Wall Street Journal anytime soon. Now, I’m sure the two companies have discussed this, just like they have probably discussed a whole range of other options. But that this one surfaces right now seems just a little too convenient.”