SAN DIEGO — After a 10-year investigation, Europe’s anti-monopoly regulator fined Qualcomm $271 million on Thursday for predatory pricing on the sales of smartphone chips between 2009 and 2011 to hurt rival Icera.
Qualcomm said it would appeal the European Commission finding to the General Court of the European Union. The San Diego wireless technology firm will provide a financial guarantee in lieu of paying the fine pending appeal.
This is the second anti-trust penalty that the European Commission has levied against Qualcomm in the past two years. In January 2018, the commission fined the San Diego company $1.2 billion for exclusive supply agreements with Apple.
Qualcomm has appealed the Apple fine as well, which is pending.
The European Commission found that Qualcomm sold certain 3G modem chipsets to Chinese smartphone makers Huawei and ZTE below cost, with the aim of forcing Icera out of the market.
The commission called Huawei and ZTE strategically important customers and said Qualcomm made the move when Icera was becoming a viable rival of 3G chips, thus posing a threat to Qualcomm’s chip business.
“Qualcomm’s strategic behavior prevented competition and innovation in this market, and limited the choice available to consumers in a sector with a huge demand and potential for innovative technologies,” said Commissioner Margrethe Vestager in a statement.
Qualcomm contends that it did not violate anti-competition laws and did not harm Icera, which brought the complaint.
Icera was acquired by Nvidia for $367 million in 2011 and under Nvidia continued to produce cellular chips until 2015.
“The Commission spent years investigating sales to two customers, each of whom said that they favored Qualcomm chips not because of price but because rival chipsets were technologically inferior,” said Don Rosenberg, general counsel for Qualcomm. “Icera was later acquired by Nvidia for hundreds of millions of dollars and continued to compete in the relevant market for several years after the end of the alleged conduct.”
Qualcomm said the commission focused on sales of a limited number of chips over a few quarters to make its finding that Qualcomm sold below cost.
“The commission’s decision is based on a novel theory of alleged below-cost pricing over a very short time period and for a very small volume of chips,” said Rosenberg. “There is no precedent for this theory, which is inconsistent with well-developed economic analysis of cost recovery, as well as commission practice.”
But the commission determined that the targeted nature of the price concessions allowed Qualcomm to maximize the negative impact on Icera’s business while minimizing the effect on its own overall revenues.
There was no evidence that Qualcomm’s pricing created any benefit that would justify its practice, according to the commission.
Qualcomm has faced a slew of legal battles with global antitrust regulators over its business practices in the past few years. It has been fined by regulators in China and South Korea.
More significantly, a U.S. District Judge in May found that Qualcomm’s patent licensing practices violated anti-trust laws in a case brought by the Federal Trade Commission.
While there was no fine, the judge ordered sweeping changes to the way Qualcomm licenses patents that could hamstring its research and development spending going forward.
Qualcomm has appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals. Earlier this week, the U.S. Department of Justice, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy filed statements with the court supporting Qualcomm’s efforts to have the District Court’s remedies put on hold pending appeal. The Trump administration agencies cited national security concerns, among other things.
Last year when the European Commission fined Qualcomm for its dealings with Apple, it focused on allegedly exclusive supply agreements between the two companies for 4G chips used in iPhones.
Qualcomm argued that the Apple deals were not exclusive but volume incentive discounts that Apple demanded in exchange for buying Qualcomm’s chips.
In April, Apple and Qualcomm settled a wide-ranging, two-year legal fight, with Apple signing multi-year patent license and chip supply agreements with Qualcomm, as well as paying at least $4.5 billion in unpaid patent royalties.