Qualcomm’s Acquisition of NXP Receives Antitrust Clearance by the European Commission, Subject to Commitments

By Kletia Noti

Introduction

On 28 April 2017, the European Commission (“Commission”) received, pursuant to the EU Merger Regulation[1], notification of a proposed concentration involving the acquisition, within the meaning of Article 3(1)(b) of the EU Merger Regulation, of NXP Semiconductors N.V., a Dutch global semiconductor manufacturer headquartered in Eindhoven, Netherlands, by Qualcomm Incorporated, a United States company world leader in 3G, 4G and next-generation wireless technologies, through its indirect wholly owned subsidiary Qualcomm River Holdings B.V.[2].

On 9 June 2017, the Commission announced that it was launching an in-depth market investigation (Phase II review). The investigation rests, at least in part, on the basis of conglomerate theories of harm (as will be better seen infra) that resulted from the Commission’s initial market investigation during Phase I.[3] To do away with the Commission’s concerns, Qualcomm submitted a series of commitments (see infra).

On 18 January 2018,[4] the Commission announced that it would clear the proposed transaction, as modified by the commitments, on the ground that it would no longer raise competition concerns[5]. The Commission’s clearance decision is conditional upon Qualcomm’s full compliance with the commitments.

At present, Qualcomm has already received approval from eight of nine required global regulators to finalize the acquisition of NXP. The only exception is China, where clearance is currently pending,[6] amid USA-China trade tensions[7]. Should all the regulatory approvals not be in place by the deadline of 25 July, 2018, Qualcomm’s holding company, Qualcomm River Holdings B.V., will pay NXP a termination fee[8].

 

A background: the companies

Qualcomm Incorporated (Qualcomm) is engaged in the development and commercialization of a digital communication technology called code division multiple access (CDMA). Qualcomm is mostly known for mainly developing and supplying baseband chipsets for smartphones, i.e. chips that allow smartphones to connect to cellular networks.

Qualcomm is divided into two main segments: (i) Qualcomm CDMA Technologies (‘QCT’) and; (ii) Qualcomm Technology Licensing (‘QTL’). QCT is a supplier of integrated circuits and system software based on CDMA, Orthogonal frequency-division multiple access (OFDMA), one of the key elements of the LTE standard, and other technologies for use in voice and data communications, networking, application processing, multimedia and global positioning system products. QTL grants licenses or otherwise provides rights to use portions of Qualcomm Incorporated’s intellectual property portfolio, which, among other rights, includes certain patent rights essential to and/or useful in the manufacture and sale of certain wireless products[9].

NXP Semiconductors N.V. (NXP) is active in the manufacturing and sale of semiconductors, in particular integrated circuits (‘ICs’) and single unit semiconductors. NXP sells broadly two categories of products, standard products and high performance mixed signal (“HPMS”) devices. NXP’s HPMS business includes application-specific semiconductors and system solutions for: (i) Automotive; (ii) Secure Identification Solutions; (iii) Secure Connected Devices; and (iv) Secure Interfaces and Power[10]. The semiconductors supplied by NXP, including near-field communication (NFC) and secure element (SE) chips for smartphones, are chips enabling short-range connectivity, which are used in particular for secure payment transactions on smartphones.

NXP has also developed and owns MIFARE, a leading technology used as a ticketing/fare collection platform by several transport authorities in the European Economic Area (EEA).

On October 2016, Qualcomm and NXP announced a definitive agreement, unanimously approved by the boards of directors of both companies, under which Qualcomm would acquire NXP by way of a share purchase acquisition carried out through Qualcomm River Holdings B.V.[11] On May 11, 2018, Qualcomm Incorporated announced that Qualcomm River Holdings B.V. has extended the offering period of its previously announced cash tender offer to purchase all of the outstanding common shares of NXP Semiconductors N.V. (NASDAQ: NXPI) until May 25, 2018.[12]

 

The Commission’s concerns and the in-depth investigation

Following its initial market investigation, the Commission had several concerns about semiconductors used in mobile devices and the automotive industry.

Concerns in the markets for chipsets used in mobile devices

Conglomerate effects’ theory of harm

More specifically, the Commission’s market investigation showed that, since the merged entity would hold strong market positions within both baseband chipsets (mainly developed and supplied by Qualcomm) and near field communication (NFC)/secure element (SE) chips (supplied by NXP), it would have had the ability and incentive to exclude Qualcomm’s and NXP’s rival suppliers from the markets (through practices such as bundling or tying).

Concerns in the merged entity’s licencing practices related to parties’ significant intellectual property portfolios

Since the merged entity would have combined the two undertakings’ significant intellectual property (IP) portfolios, in particular with respect to the NFC technology, the Commission was additionally concerned that, post-merger, the Commission would have had the ability and incentive to modify NXP’s current IP licensing practices, in relation to NFC’s technology, including by means of bundling the NFC IP to Qualcomm’s patent portfolio.

According to the Commission, this could have caused the merged entity to avail itself of a stronger buying power vis-à-vis customers than absent the transaction. The Commission opined that this would have led to anticompetitive effects in the relevant market, including by means of higher royalties for the NCF patent licences and/or competitors’ foreclosure.

 

Concerns in the markets for semiconductors used in the automotive sector

An additional Commission concern was that the merged entity resulting from the proposed acquisition would have removed competition between in the markets for semiconductors used in the automotive sector, and, more specifically, the emerging Vehicle-to-Everything (“V2X”) technology, which will play an important role in the future development of “connected cars” (through which cars can “talk” to other cars).

Phase II investigation

On 21 June 2017, the Commission launched its Phase II market test.

The Commission’s in-depth market investigation during Phase II of the merger review confirmed some of its initial concerns.

Concerns related to MIFARE

One of the Commission’s concerns was that the merged entity would have had the ability and incentive to make it more difficult for other suppliers to access NXP’s MIFARE technology (a contactless security technology platform used as a ticketing/fare collection platform by EEA transport authorities) by possibly raising licencing royalties and/or refusing to licence such technology, thus resulting in potential anticompetitive foreclosure effects for competitors.

Concerns related to interoperability

In addition, the Commission also noted that, due to Qualcomm’s strong position in the supply of baseband chipsets and NPX’s strong position in the supply of near field communication (NFC)/SE chips, the merged entity would have had the incentive and ability to reduce interoperability of such chipsets with those of rival supplies. The Commission feared that this, in turn, could have resulted in competitors’ foreclosure.

Concern related to the merged-entity’s licencing practices

Finally, the in-depth investigation also confirmed concerns that the merged entity would have had the ability and incentive to modify NXP’s current IP licensing practices for NFC technology, which could have led the merged entity to charge significantly higher royalties.

By contrast, the Commission’s initial concerns concerning the markets for semiconductors in the automotive sector were not confirmed.

 

Qualcomm’s commitments

Qualcomm offered the following remedies[13] in order to address the Commission’s concerns[14]:

Concerns related to MIFARE

As seen above, some of the Commission concerns related to possible rivals’ foreclosure effects through actual or constructive refusal to supply of the MIFARE technology.

To address the Commission’s concerns, Qualcomm committed “from the Closing Date and for a period of eight (8) years thereafter, upon written request by any Third Party, to grant any such Third Party a nonexclusive MIFARE License also involving the use of MIFARE Trademarks on commercial terms (including with regard to the fee, scope and duration of the license) which are at least as advantageous as those offered by NXP in existing MIFARE Licenses on the Effective Date”.

Qualcomm also committed “to offer to MIFARE Licensees, on commercially reasonable and nondiscriminatory terms, the extension of the MIFARE Licenses for MIFARE Implementation in an Integrated Secure Element.”

Concerns related to interoperability

A second element of the Commission’s concerns related to the merged entity’s ability and incentive to degrade interoperability of Qualcomm’s baseband chipsets and NPX’s products.

In this respect, Qualcomm also undertook “from the Closing Date, on a worldwide basis and for a period of eight (8) years thereafter to ensure the same level of Interoperability, including, but not limited to, functionality and performance, between: (a) Qualcomm Baseband Chipsets and NXP Products, and the Third Party’s NFC Chips, Secure Element Chips, Integrated Secure Element or NFC/SE or Secure Element Technology; and (b) NXP Products and the Third Party’s Baseband Chipset or Applications Processor as will exist at any point in time between Qualcomm’s Baseband Chipsets and NXP’s Products, unless Qualcomm demonstrates to the Commission by means of a reasoned and documented submission to the Trustee that there are technical characteristics of the Third Party’s products that do not allow Qualcomm to achieve the same level of Interoperability, such as generational differences between Qualcomm’s and the Third Party’s respective chips”.

Concern related to the merged-entity’s licencing practices

The market analysis confirmed the Commission’s initial competition concerns with respect to the licensing of NXP’s NFC patents as a result of the transaction, as seen supra.

Qualcomm committed to not acquire NXP’s NFC standard-essential patents (SEPs) as well as certain of NXP’s NFC non SEPs.  NXP undertook to transfer the abovementioned patents that Qualcomm commits not to acquire to a third party, which would be under an obligation to grant a worldwide royalty free licence to such patents for a period of three years. At the same time, with respect to some of NXP’s NFC non-SEPs that Qualcomm would have acquired, in order to do away with the Commission’s concerns, Qualcomm committed, for as long as the merged entity would own these patents, not to enforce rights with respect to these patents vis-à-vis other parties and to grant a worldwide royalty licence with respect to these parties.

 

Clearance decision

On 18 January 2018,[15] the Commission rendered public its decision to clear the proposed transaction, as modified by the commitments submitted by Qualcomm, on the grounds that such commitments would suffice to do away with its competition concerns.[16]

The Commission’s clearance decision is rendered conditional upon Qualcomm’s full compliance with the commitments. A Monitoring Trustee, namely one or more natural or legal person(s) who is/are approved by the Commission and appointed by Qualcomm, has the duty to monitor Qualcomm’s compliance with the obligations attached to this Decision.[17]

Pending sign-off from China’s regulator, the transaction remains incomplete. At Qualcomm, hopes remain high that the situation will be finalized soon.

[1] Council Regulation (EC) No 139/2004 of 20 January 2004 on the control of concentrations between undertakings (the EU Merger Regulation) (Text with EEA relevance) Official Journal L 024 , 29/01/2004 P. 0001 – 0022. Under Article 4(1), It is mandatory to notify concentrations with an EU dimension to the European Commission for clearance.

[2] See prior notification of a concentration (Case M.8306 — Qualcomm/NXP Semiconductors), OJ C 143, 6.5.2017, p. 6–6.

[3] After notification, the Commission has 25 working days to analyze the deal during the Phase I investigation. If there are competition concerns, companies can offer remedies, which extends the phase I deadline by 10 working days. At the end of a phase I investigation: (a) the merger is cleared, either unconditionally or subject to accepted remedies; or

(b) the merger still raises competition concerns and the Commission opens a Phase II in-depth investigation. If Phase II is opened, the Commission has 90 further working days to examine the concentration. This period can be extended by 15 working days when the notifying parties offer commitments. With the parties’ consent, it can be extended by up to 20 working days.

[4]Brussels, 18 January 2018, press release, “Mergers: Commission approves Qualcomm’s acquisition of NXP, subject to conditions”, available at: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-18-347_en.htm

[5]Under Article 6(2) EUMR, “Where the Commission finds that, following modification by the undertakings concerned, a notified concentration no longer raises serious doubts within the meaning of paragraph 1(c), it shall declare the concentration compatible with the common market pursuant to paragraph 1(b). The Commission may attach to its decision under paragraph 1(b) conditions and obligations intended to ensure that the undertakings concerned comply with the commitments they have entered into vis-à-vis the Commission with a view to rendering the concentration compatible with the common market.”

[6]On request of China’s commerce ministry (MOFCOM), just days before the regulator’s April 17, 2018 deadline to decide on whether to clear the transaction expired, Qualcomm withdrew its earlier application to MOFCOM on April 14, 2018, and, in concomitance with such withdrawal, it re-filed a new application to obtain clearance of the proposed transaction. See M.Miller, April 16, 2018, Qualcomm to refile China antitrust application for $44 billion NXP takeover: sources, available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-qualcomm-antitrust/qualcomm-to-refile-china-antitrust-application-for-44-billion-nxp-takeover-sources and Qualcomm Press Release, Qualcomm and NXP Agree, at MOFCOM Request, to Withdraw and Refile Application for Chinese Regulatory Approval, April 16, 2018: https://www.qualcomm.com/news/releases/2018/04/19/qualcomm-and-nxp-agree-mofcom-request-withdraw-and-refile-application.

[7] A. Barry, “Stock Selloff Hurts Arbitrage Traders”, 3 May 2018, https://www.barrons.com/articles/stock-selloff-hurts-arbitrage-traders-1525369030

[8] Qualcomm Press Release, Qualcomm and NXP Agree, at MOFCOM Request, to Withdraw and Refile Application for Chinese Regulatory Approval, April 16, 2018: https://www.qualcomm.com/news/releases/2018/04/19/qualcomm-and-nxp-agree-mofcom-request-withdraw-and-refile-application.

[9] Id.

[10] Id.

[11] Qualcomm Press Release, Qualcomm to acquire NXP, 27 October 2016, available at:   https://www.qualcomm.com/news/releases/2016/10/27/qualcomm-acquire-nxp.

[12] Qualcomm Press Release, Qualcomm extends cash tender offer for all outstanding shares of NXP, May 11, 2018, available at: https://www.qualcomm.com/news/releases/2018/05/11/qualcomm-extends-cash-tender-offer-all-outstanding-shares-nxp

[13] See, for a non-confidential interim text of the commitments, Case M.8306 – QUALCOMM / NXP SEMICONDUCTORS, Commitments to the European Commission, published on 24 January 2018, available at: http://ec.europa.eu/competition/mergers/cases/additional_data/m8306_3395_3.pdf

[14]Brussels, 18 January 2018, press release, “Mergers: Commission approves Qualcomm’s acquisition of NXP, subject to conditions”, available at: http://europa.eu/rapid/press-release_IP-18-347_en.htm

[15]See above, foonote 4.

[16] Under Article 6(2) EUMR, “Where the Commission finds that, following modification by the undertakings concerned, a notified concentration no longer raises serious doubts within the meaning of paragraph 1(c), it shall declare the concentration compatible with the common market pursuant to paragraph 1(b). The Commission may attach to its decision under paragraph 1(b) conditions and obligations intended to ensure that the undertakings concerned comply with the commitments they have entered into vis-à-vis the Commission with a view to rendering the concentration compatible with the common market.”

[17] http://ec.europa.eu/competition/mergers/cases/additional_data/m8306_3444_3.pdf

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