The chips are down! The Commission fines Qualcomm for abuse of dominance

The Commission has fined Qualcomm €997 million for abuse of dominance. The Commission found that Qualcomm had paid Apple to use only Qualcomm LTE baseband chips in its smartphones and tablet devices (see here) and that this was exclusionary and anti-competitive. 

Commissioner Vestager has said Qualcomm “denied consumers and other companies more choice and innovation – and this in a sector with a huge demand and potential for innovative technologies”, as “no rival could effectively challenge Qualcomm in this market, no matter how good their products were.

LTE baseband chips enable portable devices to connect to mobile networks. The Commission considers Qualcomm to have had a market share of over 90% between 2011 and 2016 (the period of the infringement). 
 
The Decision centres on an agreement between Qualcomm and Apple in force from 2011 to 2016 under which Qualcomm agreed to make significant payments to Apple. The payments were conditional on Apple not using chips supplied by Qualcomm’s rivals, such as Intel, in Apple’s mobile devices. Equally, Apple would be required to return a large part of Qualcomm’s previous payments if it decided to switch chip suppliers. The Commission also identifies Qualcomm’s IP rights as contributing to the significant barriers to entry in the chip market, reinforcing Qualcomm’s dominance.

The Qualcomm Decision is similar to the Commission’s 2009 Decision to fine Intel €1.06 billion for giving rebates to major customers in return for them exclusively stocking computers with Intel chips – a decision recently remitted by the CJEU to the General Court for further consideration of the ‘as efficient’ competitor analysis (see here and here). 

Applying the CJEU’s reasoning in Intel, Qualcomm sought to justify its rebate arrangements with Apple on the basis of the ‘as efficient competitor test’. However this attempt was rejected by the Commission as there were “serious problems” with Qualcomm’s evidence (see here).

Separately, Apple has also argued that Qualcomm’s dominance may be reinforced by its strategy for licensing its standard essential patents (SEPs) to competing chip manufacturers. Apple is bringing cases against Qualcomm around the world, alleging that it has engaged in “exclusionary tactics and excessive royalties”. In litigation launched in the English Patent Court in 2017, Apple alleges that Qualcomm is unwilling to license its SEPs to competing chip manufacturers, offering only patent non-assert agreements (see here) which could have a foreclosing effect on other chip manufacturers. (We understand that this case is subject to a jurisdiction challenge, due to be heard in the coming months.)

Qualcomm’s patent licensing arrangements are described (by Apple in its pleadings) in the diagram below:

The Qualcomm Decision reiterates the aggressive approach adopted by the Commission to policing rebates given by dominant companies and potential foreclosure effects. Following the Qualcomm Decision, Commissioner Vestager said “[t]he issue for us isn't the rebate itself. We obviously don't object to companies cutting prices. But these rebates can be the price of an exclusive relationship – the price of keeping rivals out of the market and losing the rebate can be the threat that makes that exclusivity stick” (see here). 
 
As litigation and antitrust clouds swirl around Qualcomm’s business model, in a separate case filed in the Northern District of California in 2017, the US Federal Trade Commission has similarly alleged that Qualcomm is using anti-competitive tactics to maintain its monopoly of baseband chips and has rejected requests for SEP licenses from Intel, Samsung and others (see here and here).

In parallel, competition authorities in China, South Korea, Japan and Taiwan have fined the company a total of $2.6 billion in relation to its SEP licensing policies and pricing (see here).

In summary, while the EU Commission fine is significant, and interesting for competition lawyers as it perhaps suggests that the significance of the Intel CJEU judgment may be more limited than anticipated, it is only part of the overall picture for Qualcomm (and for the sector as a whole). Indeed, even with today’s decision, the Commission has not brought its interest in Qualcomm to an end, as it is still investigating a separate predatory pricing complaint which was filed in 2015.  

The cumulative impact of these legal issues (as well as Qualcomm’s rejection of Broadcom’s takeover bid) may have contributed to a fall in Qualcomm’s share price – although Qualcomm had better news from DG Comp recently when its proposed acquisition of NXP was cleared by Brussels on 18 January (see here and here).

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