Thursday, February 12, 2009

CDMA success brings Chinese royalty gripes

Taking a page from their Korean counterparts, in the face of rapidly growing sales, Chinese cellphone manufacturers are airing complaints through local propaganda organs in hopes of lowering their contractually obligated CDMA royalties.

Last year, a reorg of China’s telecommunications industry brought dominant landline provider China Telecom the opportunity to offer 3G mobile services using Qualcomm’s cdma2000. On Wednesday, China’s official Xinhua news service reported good news for Qualcomm and its local licensees:
Under the stimulation of China Telecom's large investment and procurement this year, the growth of China's CDMA cell phone market will be great, said an industrial insider. Competition will heat up as many GSM mobile phone manufacturers are entering the CDMA field, he added.

China's CMDA cell phone market rebounded in the end of 2008 despite gloomy market conditions. According to statistics released by market research firm Sino-MR, sales volume of CDMA handsets topped 1.29 million during December 2008, up 33.6 percent year on year and 183 percent month on month, marking a five-year high.
However, the report ended with a complaint about the royalty rates
Insiders with China Telecom consider China an important market for CDMA business and expect Qualcomm to realize the market condition and give more supportive pricing. Qualcomm refused to comment.
When in 2000 Irwin Jacobs negotiated government permission for CDMA to be used in China, Qualcomm granted Chinese manufacturers the best rates in the world — around 2.65% as opposed to 5% for other makers. (Qualcomm neither discloses nor confirms its royalty rates).

In fact, this deal has brought continued griping by Korean manufacturers paying list price. The Korea Times has run one-sided stories since 2004 airing selective leaking by the unhappy manufacturers. For example, it ran a March 2004 story (no longer on their website) entitled “Qualcomm's Royalty Policy Angers Korean Chip Makers”:
U.S. chipmaker Qualcomm’s royalty policy has angered Korean manufacturers of code division multiple access (CDMA) phones as it charges lower rates to China than to Korea.

A local CDMA phone maker contends that Qualcomm gives a “subsidy” to Chinese exporters as it collects as low as 5 percent of handset prices in royalties from them. But the rate is 5.75 percent for Korean makers.

Korean cell phone producers, which pay a fixed 5.75 percent for export and 5.25 percent for local sales to the San Diego-headquartered firm, shoulder higher royalty burdens in both domestic and global markets.

According to a contract between Qualcomm and one of China’s leading handset manufacturers, which The Korea Times obtained exclusively, the royalty rates are 2.65 percent for local sales and 7 percent for offshore shipments.

However, the contract says the export royalty will be cut to as low as 5 percent after the three years immediately following the license effective date.

The deduction ranges from 5 percent to 6.5 percent, depending on quarterly export volume, but the Chinese firm is entitled to enjoy the low rates “if more than 100,000 such subscriber units (handsets) are sold in the applicable calendar (year)” in overseas markets.
The KT report said that Chinese manufacturers signed a 10-year agreement in “early 2001,” which would mean these deals will be expiring in 2011.

A review of Qualcomm’s 2001 press releases reveals this May 21, 2001 announcement:
Qualcomm Incorporated … today announced that it has signed a commercial license with ZTE Corporation, a leading manufacturer of telecommunications equipment in China. Under the terms of the royalty-bearing license agreement, Qualcomm has granted ZTE a license under Qualcomm's CDMA patent portfolio to develop, manufacture and sell cdmaOne™ and third-generation (3G) CDMA2000 1x/1xEV network equipment. The license grants ZTE the right to use Qualcomm's technology and integrated circuits to make and sell cdmaOne and CDMA2000 equipment in China and worldwide. ZTE becomes the first company in the People's Republic of China to enter into a commercial license with Qualcomm.
Additional manufacturers signed licenses in July and November, with the latter including Huawei. Another 17 Chinese firms signed in January 2002.

The Xinhua story seems designed to help Chinese manufacturers (or China Telecom) pressure Qualcomm to lower royalties on the current deals, or at least when the licenses come up for renewal in two years.

Interestingly, there is no complaining about the GSM royalty rate, which is also secret. One report estimated the rate at 2-10%. However, data from the various Sendo-related lawsuits put the number more like 10-13%, suggesting that single-digit GSM royalties are only available to firms with big enough patent portfolios to negotiate a cross-license. Thus far, only a few Chinese manufacturers have enough patents to possibly put them in the latter category.

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