On 18 January 2018 the European Commission approved Qualcomm’s proposed $47 billion acquisition of the Dutch semiconductor manufacturer NXP after an in-depth second phase review. Qualcomm and NXP originally announced the deal on 27 October 2016, notifying it to the European Commission on 28 April 2017. The Commission’s Phase II review was initiated on 9 June 2017, following concerns that the merged entity would have a strong market position in a number of different technologies.
The technologies involved
Qualcomm is particularly known for its baseband chipsets which enable mobile phones to connect to mobile communications networks. NXP focuses on different semiconductors. Most notably, NXP manufactures near-field communication (NFC) chips used to enable a wireless link between two devices at close proximities over which data can be transferred, and secure element (SE) chips. SE chips control interactions between trusted sources: for example, used in combination with NFC, they enable mobile payments between a smart phone and a contactless card machine.
NXP also developed MIFARE, a leading technology used by several transport authorities across the EEA as a ticketing/fare collection platform. London’s Oyster card transport system is one such use example of the use of MIFARE technology.
Competition concerns and remedies
Both Qualcomm and NXP hold a significant amount of IP related to NFC chips, including standard essential patents (SEPs) and non-essential patents. The Commission was therefore concerned that the increased level of bargaining power of the merged entity would enable it to demand significantly higher royalties in its patent licences.
To address the Commission’s concerns (and it would appear similar concerns raised by the Korean Fair Trade Commission), Qualcomm offered to carve out NXP’s SEPs and some of its non-essential patents from the transaction. Instead, NXP will transfer these to a third party, who will be required to grant worldwide royalty-free licences to these patents for three years.
Whilst Qualcomm will still acquire some of NXP’s other non-essential NFC patents, it has committed to grant worldwide royalty-free licences to these patents and not to enforce them against other companies. Interestingly, the Commission’s press release suggests that there is a significant caveat here: this commitment applies “for as long as [Qualcomm] owns these patents”. That implies the possibility of Qualcomm being able to adopt a similar strategy to that of Ericsson in Unwired Planet (see the judgment here and our blog posts here and here) – it could later assign these patents to another entity to monetise under a revenue-sharing agreement.
The Commission considered that the merged entity would have the ability and incentive to degrade the interoperability of Qualcomm’s baseband chips, and NXP’s NFC and SE chips with rivals’ products. This could lead to rival suppliers being marginalised, with smart phone manufacturers choosing only to purchase chips from Qualcomm/NXP.
In order to address this concern, Qualcomm agreed that for the next eight years it would provide the same level of interoperability between its own baseband chips and the NFC and SE chips it acquires from NXP with any corresponding products manufactured by rival companies.
For MIFARE, the Commission was again concerned about royalty levels, concluding that the merged entity would have the ability and incentive to raise royalties and make it more difficult for other suppliers to access MIFARE. It also suggested the merged entity might cease to offer licences to MIFARE altogether.
In response, Qualcomm committed to offer licenses to MIFARE technology and trademarks for an eight-year period, on terms that are at least as advantageous as those available today. The Commission was satisfied that this would enable competitors of the merged entity to continue to compete effectively.
At the time of writing, the European Commission’s clearance was the eighth of nine mandatory approvals needed, with just China remaining.
There’s an interesting discrepancy in the length of time the various commitments will run for. Eight years seems to be an extraordinarily long time in an industry driven by continual technological innovations; it also means that rival manufacturers will have some considerable time to think about alternatives to MIFARE and interoperability with Qualcomm chips.
However, the third party that acquires NXP’s NFC SEP portfolio will be free to begin monetising that portfolio after just three years. Given the increasing use of NFC with contactless payment technologies like Samsung Pay or Apple Pay, and the expansion into other areas such as ‘smart tourism’ (e.g. using NFC tags in art galleries or museums that can show users additional information about an exhibit), there could be plenty of FRAND negotiation/litigation regarding NFC in the future.
It isn’t surprising that the Commission’s concerns centred on licensing royalty rates – this is a complicated, controversial area of law that is still developing. The Commission recently published some guidance on FRAND rates in its SEP Communication (see our blog here) and how royalty rates should be calculated was the key feature of the recent TCL decision in the US (here). For Qualcomm, currently embroiled in a worldwide dispute with Apple over licences fees for its baseband chips (link), the NXP merger is a sensible move. It will significantly expand what Qualcomm can offer to manufacturers. However, despite regulatory approval being granted, there have been some rumblings of discontent about the value of Qualcomm’s offer (link), and the unsolicited bid by Broadcom to purchase Qualcomm (link) also has the potential to cause some interference with the acquisition. So the Commission’s decision is not quite the end of the story here…