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Qualcomm faces likely $1B fine in China, with a silver lining

The pricey penalty would bring resolution to a long-running antitrust investigation in a country where Qualcomm generates half its revenue.

Qualcomm president Derek Aberle, who's served as a point person on the Chinese investigation. Josh Miller/CNET

Chinese regulators may fine Qualcomm, the world's biggest mobile-chips maker, roughly $1 billion as part of a long-running antimonopoly investigation into the company.

The punishment is expected to become public in the next few days, state-run Securities Times reported Monday. Xu Kunlin, head of the National Development and Reform Commission's antimonopoly division, said in the publication that the fine will be several times the NDRC's total fines for all of last year.

The development was reported earlier by both Reuters and Bloomberg. Reuters said the fine would be the biggest any company paid in China.

A Qualcomm representative wasn't immediately available for comment.

The fine would bring some measure of resolution -- albeit a tough one to swallow -- to the 14-month-long investigation of Qualcomm in China, a country where the chipmaker generates half its revenue and is looking to expand. That's why Qualcomm's stock is higher Monday despite the possibility of a hefty $1 billion penalty -- investors are just relieved to see an end to the uncertainty that has weighed on the company. Wall Street has generally expected a fine of that size for months, and Qualcomm is likely able to pay it with little pain, given that its revenue last fiscal year was $26.5 billion.

Qualcomm's shares Monday are up about 3 percent, at $68.40. The stock is down about 7.5 percent over the past year.

"If true, this would be very positive news for Qualcomm as it has been the 'monkey on their back' for the last year," said Patrick Moorhead, president of Moor Insights and Strategy. "Investors don't like uncertainty and this would remove most of uncertainty of the stock."

The San Diego, Calif., company has for years been the top dog in mobile chips, providing the processors or radio chips, or both, inside most of major smartphones, including Apple's iPhone, Samsung's Galaxy line, and LG and Sony phones. However, for the past few months the company has had a string of bad news, including layoffs, weak financial guidance, US and European investigations and, most recently, the company revealing that a major customer likely wasn't using its latest Snapdragon chip in a flagship phone. That device is expected to be the next Samsung Galaxy S smartphone.

So an end to its China problems is seen as a positive sign. Additionally, Reuters reports that Qualcomm likely won't have to change its business model in China. Instead, it will just alter some of its licensing practices, including the royalty rates it charges for its patents. That could also be seen as a win for Qualcomm since many analysts feared that a significant change to the company's business practices in China might cause a domino effect for the company's business in other countries.

Still, the resolution in China doesn't change many of the bigger problems Qualcomm is facing, said Bernstein analyst Stacy Rasgon, including lower prices and the loss of Samsung's next Galaxy S.

"They've got fundamental issues that have nothing to do with China regulatory issues," he said, though added that the end of the investigation should provide a short-term benefit.

Reports that a resolution would be made public shortly have been coming out at a regular clip for months, though this latest report comes from an official statement, instead of -- as in some other cases -- an anonymous source.

China has been criticized for using its 2008 antimonopoly law unfairly against foreign firms, with several tech and other companies facing similar investigations, including Microsoft and Daimler. The Qualcomm investigation, though, has been among the highest profile.

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