Qualcomm, the largest manufacturer of baseband chipsets for mobile phones, has recently found itself under attack again for its business practices.
In September last year, the UK chipset maker Icera and its US-based parent company Nvidia launched proceedings against Qualcomm in the UK. Court filings that were made public last month make clear that the claimants are seeking compensation for losses suffered as a result of Qualcomm’s alleged “unlawful abuse of dominance”.
Nvidia spent $352 million to acquire Icera in 2011 – but was forced to wind down its mobile broadband chipset business, including its Icera unit, just four years later. Nvidia claims that Qualcomm’s aggressive pricing strategies – selling chipsets below the costs of development and production – drove Icera out of the market and caused Nvidia’s applications-processor business to incur substantial losses.
Nvidia is arguing that Qualcomm has a dominant position in essential patents for 3G and 4G wireless standards, and that this position has enhanced its strength downstream in the sale of chipsets to mobile device manufacturers. It further argues that Qualcomm’s dominance in the market for slim modem chipsets is “reinforced by barriers to entry and expansion”.
According to the claim filed by Nvidia and Icera, Qualcomm’s aggressive and anticompetitive behaviour led to “unexplained delays in customer orders, reductions in demand volumes and contracts never being entered into, even after a customer […] had agreed or expressed a strong intention to purchase” Nvidia’s chipsets. Nvidia says that it was forced to reduce prices to retain customers, which had an adverse impact on revenues and impaired its technical ability to innovate.
The recent developments in the UK-based action come on the back of the two Statements of Objections that the European Commission sent to Qualcomm in December 2015. In the first of these, the Commission set out its preliminary findings that Qualcomm made illegal payments to a manufacturer-customer in exchange for that manufacturer exclusively using Qualcomm chipsets in its smartphones and tablets.
In the second Statement of Objections, the Commission took the preliminary view that Qualcomm deliberately sold chipsets below cost with the aim of hindering competition, forcing Icera out of the market in particular.
EU Commissioner for Competition Margrethe Vestager said in December last year: “Many consumers enjoy high-speed internet on smartphones and other devices – baseband chipsets are key components that make this happen. I am concerned that Qualcomm’s actions may have pushed out competitors or prevented them from competing. We need to make sure that European consumers continue to benefit from competition and innovation in an area which is at the heart of today’s economy.”
We understand that Qualcomm is due to respond to the Commission’s allegations shortly.
As we have pointed out previously, Qualcomm is no stranger to allegations of anticompetitive conduct. It can confidently be said that many in the mobile telecoms industry will be keeping a close eye on the High Court proceedings and Commission investigations, not least Nvidia and Icera.
Edwin Bond and Emma-Jane Tritton