US chipmaker Qualcomm is facing fresh allegations of anti-competitive conduct in Europe – just six months after seeing off a four-year probe by Europe’s competition watchdog. According to a Financial Times report today, the new complaint, being looked at by the European Commission, comes from Icera, a UK rival, which claims that Qualcomm is using patent-related incentives to discourage customers from doing business with Icera. The probe is at an early stage but, if pursued by the Commission, could mark the start of a battle between the small venture capital-backed UK start-up and the world’s largest maker of chips for mobile devices. Icera’s customers include major operators such as AT&T, Vodafone and Japan’s SoftBank, which use the UK firm’s chips in mobile broadband dongles for laptops. “Qualcomm may be getting a little worried about pricing. It is struggling to maintain its 60 percent margins and now it is seeing these guys coming into the market with a soft modem that could potentially disrupt the pricing further,” Lee Simpson, a semiconductor analyst at Jefferies, told the Financial Times.
According to the report, the latest investigation comes just six months after the close of a four-year probe by European antitrust regulators into Qualcomm’s activities. That case involved complaints from six big manufacturers who claimed that Qualcomm had refused to license patents to chip competitors “on fair, reasonable and non-discriminatory terms,” while “offering lower royalty rates to handset customers who buy chip sets exclusively from Qualcomm.” The complaints were withdrawn after two of the plaintiffs – Nokia and Broadcom – settled with Qualcomm out of court. Qualcomm said on Wednesday that it understood the Icera complaint was at “a very preliminary stage” and added that it was reviewing the allegations. “We do note, however, the similarity between Icera’s allegations and those in complaints made previously to the EU, which apparently failed to persuade the Commission and were ultimately withdrawn. We believe the new allegations to be equally meritless,” the firm said.