Qualcomm Looks to Soften China Antitrust Blow
Chipset giant Qualcomm faces a hefty fine and a cut in royalty fees as the antitrust probe into its China patent licensing reaches its final stage.
After an eight-month inquiry, the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) has determined that Qualcomm Inc. (Nasdaq: QCOM)'s 4G licensing fees are a monopoly under the Anti-Monopoly Law. This is not illegal in itself, but the logic of the process is such that a stiff penalty is inevitable, with domestic media suggesting it could amount to as much as US$1 billion.
The San Diego-based chipmaker, which derives two-thirds of its profit from royalties and sells significant volumes of its processors in China, also appears to have come around to that view. (See Qualcomm Announces Record Third Quarter Fiscal 2014 Results.)
CEO Steve Mollenkopf flew into Beijing Thursday on his third visit to the country since becoming CEO in March. He met with officials, including Premier Li Keqiang and the NDRC, and held a press conference to announce a $150m fund to invest in Chinese startups. Just three weeks ago the company said it would collaborate with Shanghai fab SMIC on 28nm wafer production. (See Qualcomm Commits Up To $150 Million to Strategic Venture Fund in China and SMIC and Qualcomm Collaborate on 28nm Wafer Production in China.)
If Qualcomm feels like it has a target on its back, it isnt alone among foreign firms in China. In 2013 milk powder companies were fined $110 million for price-fixing, while pharmaceuticals firm GlaxoSmithKline is embroiled in a bribery scandal featuring a sex tape involving its former China chief, and even Starbucks has come under fire for selling expensive coffee.
But analysts point out that while xenophobia may not be far from the surface, high-profile foreign firms are being singled out as a politically safe way of signalling to domestic companies that they need to clean up their act.
IN addition, the Chinese also feel they have a reasonable case against Qualcomm. The say that, as a rule of thumb, patent licensing fees for various technologies shouldn't cumulatively account for more than 10% of the sale price: Qualcomm on its own levies a 5% royalty fee.
Qualcomm has said the uncertainty created by the probe has meant it has had difficulty in collecting from customers -- including one large, unnamed firm -- prompting a 6.65% slide in its stock price Thursday to end the day at $76.17.
If that's not troubling enough, the Financial Times reports that Qualcomm might have to settle by foregoing royalties for LTE TDD, the variant of 4G being deployed on a massive scale by China Mobile Ltd. (NYSE: CHL) and in some areas by the country's other two main operators. (See China Issues More 4G Licenses and China Holds Key to LTE TDD.)
Chinese critics point out this isn't Qualcomm's first brush with competition law. In 2009 the Korean competition regulator fined Qualcomm a record $207 million for abusing its market power over Korean vendors when it held 99.4% of the CDMA chip market.
Meanwhile, Qualcomm continues to produce healthy financial results. For its fiscal third quarter that ended June 29, the company posted record revenues of $6.81 billion, up 9% from a year earlier, and net income of $2.24 billion, up 42%.
Robert Clark, contributing editor, special to Light Reading