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EU Fines Qualcomm A Billion Euro Over Exclusive Deals With Customers

The European Union concluded its antitrust investigation into Qualcomm with a €997 million ($1.23 billion) fine for the company, which is 4.9% of Qualcomm’s revenue in 2017. The EU’s investigation found  that Qualcomm was doing exclusive deals with customers and preventing them from buying from anyone else, which is illegal under EU antitrust laws.

Commissioner Margrethe Vestager, who is in charge of competition policy, said:

Qualcomm illegally shut out rivals from the market for LTE baseband chipsets for over five years, thereby cementing its market dominance. Qualcomm paid billions of US Dollars to a key customer, Apple, so that it would not buy from rivals. These payments were not just reductions in price – they were made on the condition that Apple would exclusively use Qualcomm's baseband chipsets in all its iPhones and iPads.This meant that no rival could effectively challenge Qualcomm in this market, no matter how good their products were. Qualcomm's behaviour denied consumers and other companies more choice and innovation – and this in a sector with a huge demand and potential for innovative technologies. This is illegal under EU antitrust rules and why we have taken today's decision.

Qualcomm And Apple Deal

The investigation seems to relate mainly to the deal between Qualcomm and Apple made back in 2011, which said that Qualcomm would commit to making significant payments to Apple if Apple wouldn’t purchase LTE modems from anyone else.

The deal also said that Qualcomm would stop the payments, and Apple would also have to return some of the money already paid by Qualcomm, if Apple wanted to switch LTE modem providers. The EC said in its statement that this meant that other providers wouldn’t be able to fairly compete against Qualcomm for Apple’s business, even if their products were better.

Apple only started considering another provider when the terms of the deal were approaching the end in 2016, so the consequences for switching were limited. Apple started using Intel LTE models in some of its iPhones back in 2016. Intel has also said recently that this type of deal between Qualcomm and its customers is what has prevented it for years from making a dent in the LTE modem market.

Ironically enough, this is the type of deal Intel has also been caught doing with Dell and other manufacturers many years ago, which was one of the reasons why the European Commission fined Intel over a billion euro back in 2009.

In the last two years we’ve also seen Samsung and MediaTek more aggressively develop their own LTE modem technology, as Qualcomm was starting to be sued by multiple governments over antitrust violations. The South Korean government has already fined Qualcomm $854 million, and the Chinese government also fined it another billion dollars. Qualcomm is currently under investigation by the FTC in the United States, too, and it’s also involved in a billion dollar lawsuit that Apple started against it.

Qualcomm Failed To Disprove EC’s Antitrust Conclusions

The EC took many factors under consideration when coming up with its decision to fine Qualcomm. These included the following:

the extent of Qualcomm's dominant position;the significant amounts paid by Qualcomm in exchange for exclusivity;a broad range of contemporaneous evidence (including Apple's internal documents) that Qualcomm's payments reduced Apple's incentives to switch to rivals;the importance of Apple as a customer in the market for LTE baseband chipset suppliers: Apple accounts for a significant share of LTE chipset demand (on average one third). Apple is also a leading smartphone and tablet manufacturer, which can influence other customers' and manufacturers' procurement and design choices. By making sure that rivals had no chance to compete for any of Apple's important business, Qualcomm's conduct had an effect on the LTE baseband chipset market as a whole; andthat Qualcomm did not demonstrate that the exclusivity condition created any efficiencies, which could have justified Qualcomm's practices.

Additionally, the EC rejected a “price-cost” test from Qualcomm, because it failed to support Qualcomm’s claim that the deal hurt competition or had other anti-competitive effects. The EC said that the deals Qualcomm made with its customers not only hurt competition, but they also deprived EU citizens of genuine choice and innovation.

Qualcomm’s Response

Qualcomm said that it does not agree with EC’s decision and it will appeal it at the General Court of the European Union. It also added that the decision has no impact on the company’s ongoing operations.

We are confident this agreement did not violate EU competition rules or adversely affect market competition or European consumers,” said Don Rosenberg, executive vice president and general counsel of Qualcomm. “We have a strong case for judicial review and we will immediately commence that process.

Lucian Armasu
Lucian Armasu is a Contributing Writer for Tom's Hardware US. He covers software news and the issues surrounding privacy and security.