MUNICH, Germany The EU antitrust authorities currently conduct investigations against a number of semiconductor companies active in the smart card chip business. Allegations include illegal price fixing and customer allocation.
In a press release from Wednesday (January 7), the European Commission acknowledges that it has carried out what it calls "unannounced inspections" at the premises of several European smart card chip manufacturers. The commission officials have been accompanied by members of the respective local antitrust authorities. The raids have already been carried out in October 2008. In this context, the EC characterized the measure as a "preliminary step" in the investigations.
Smart card chips are used in mobile phones, payment solutions, identity documents such as electronic passports, and other access control applications. The market for such chips has been characterized by heavy price pressure over the past years.
In Europe the largest manufacturers of such chips are Infineon, NXP and STMicroelectronics. While ST was not available for comment, Financial Times Deutschland wrote that the French-Italian chip maker also is included in the investigation. An NXP spokesperson said that the company is responding to the respective inquiry and is cooperating with the authorities. An Infineon spokesperson pointed out that the company cooperated with the authorities already at the opportunity of the raid and "continues to do everything possible to clarify the facts of the case."
For Infineon, an antitrust action would be particularly embarrassing since the company currently is depending on state aid to keep its memory chip subsidiary Qimonda afloat.
Since Infineon over the past quarters had changed its focus in the smart card chip market from the SIM segment, where price pressure is the heaviest, to more upmarket segments such as payment and security solutions, it might be less likely that the company is involved in illegal price fixing. The EC anitrust authorities however point out that the investigations also include allegations of customer allocation and the exchange of commercially sensitive information.