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Apple's iPhone sales tactics in spotlight in European probe

The European Commission has sent out questionnaires to mobile operators quizzing them on Apple's sales tactics.

Apple is under investigation in Europe over whether it uses anti-competitive tactics to help its iPhone gain an unfair advantage over rivals.

A formal inquiry hasn't been brought yet, the FT reports. But the European Commission has sent out a questionnaire to mobile networks to lift the lid on Apple's distribution terms and technical restrictions, to see if it's playing by the rules.

The nine-page questionnaire focuses on sales tactics, and whether Apple forces networks to buy a minimum number of iPhones. Apple's possible restrictions on the use of marketing budgets, and clauses that ensure the Cupertino company is always offered at least equal, if not better subsidies and sales terms than other manufacturers will also come in for close scrutiny.

Apple's technical restrictions that stop the iPhone 5 being used on 4G networks in Europe are also under the spotlight. While the iPhone 5 plays nice with EE's 4G network in Blighty, it uses a different spectrum band to many European high-speed networks.

Distribution agreements between Apple and the networks "may potentially lead to the foreclosure of other smart phone manufacturers from the markets," the questionnaire says. If certain technical functions are disabled on some Apple products, "it might constitute an infringement of [antitrust law]."

In order to bring an official investigation however, the commission will have to prove Apple is the dominant smart phone maker in Europe. Which could prove tricky, considering the rise of Samsung.

The networks have until 17 June to respond, so we'll know soon after that whether a full inquiry will be launched.

Chinese mobile makers Huawei and ZTE came under scrutiny in Europe recently for potentially undercutting rival mobile makers. Offering handsets at such low prices "creates a distorted playing field", according to European Union Trade Commissioner Karl De Gucht. Both companies deny they receive any state support from the Chinese government.

Do you think Apple should be investigated? What about companies offering phones for cheaper than rivals, is that unfair? Or just healthy competition? Let me know in the comments, or on Facebook.