Beware, Qualcomm: Broadcom is used to winning battles with hostility, as Amazon knows

Key Points
  • Broadcom has insisted that some customers pay more money for chips and promise not to buy from competitors, sources said.
  • The Federal Trade Commission has been investigating Broadcom's anticompetitive practices.
  • Broadcom lowered its bid to buy Qualcomm by $3 per share last week.
Hock Tan, CEO of Broadcom
Lucas Jackson | Reuters

Beware, Qualcomm: Broadcom is used to winning battles with hostility.

The chipmaker that's threatening to replace six of Qualcomm's directors to facilitate a takeover has a reputation for forcing abrupt price increases with its customers, including Amazon, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and Seagate, among others, according to people familiar with the matter.

Tactics used by Broadcom include ripping up existing contracts and demanding higher prices for chips while threatening to cut off supply if companies refuse to agree, said the people, who asked not to be named because the negotiations are private. Broadcom has also convinced customers to sign contracts that install the company as an exclusive provider of chips. Those steps funnel money away from rivals that make similar replacement products, the people said.

The U.S. Federal Trade Commission has already launched an antitrust investigation into Broadcom's anticompetitive maneuvers, the Wall Street Journal reported in January. But the details of Broadcom's tactics have been unclear. In December CNBC reported that Google and Microsoft had concerns about a Broadcom-Qualcomm combination.

Broadcom's CEO Hock Tan is the mastermind behind the aggressive pricing, which one person who has had to negotiate with him likened to "extortion." Tan has long had a reputation for cutting costs and focusing on chips with favorable profit margins.

Broadcom declined comment.

Fighting tactics

Tan isn't afraid to go after some of the largest Silicon Valley companies with price hikes.

Broadcom demanded that Amazon pay higher prices for Ethernet networking switch processors used in Amazon's data centers, said people familiar with the negotiations. Broadcom held 61 percent of the $3.7 billion Ethernet switch chip market in 2016. It also controlled 95 percent of the $970 million market for 10 Gigabit Ethernet switch chips that year, Bob Wheeler, an analyst with semiconductor research firm Linley Group, told CNBC.

After Amazon started buying comparable chips from a different company, Tan decided he wanted to raise prices to account for losing business to a competitor, but Amazon objected, one person said.

Soon after that, in September 2016, Broadcom filed a wide-ranging patent infringement case against Amazon. Tan believed Broadcom would get extra money from Amazon either through the lawsuit or the higher chip prices, the person said. The companies settled the case in October, according to a filing.

Other companies not as large as Amazon are forced to take the new sudden price increases without much recourse, other than knowing Broadcom is using similar tactics to force price increases among peers, two of the people said.

Broadcom also played hardball with HPE during pricing negotiations in the past 12 months, insisting on higher prices for parts, although it did offer to lower prices if HPE could promise further business in future quarters, another person said.

Seagate, Arris, and Technicolor have had similar experiences, according to people familiar with Broadcom's pricing.

Spokespeople at Amazon, Seagate, Arris and Technicolor declined to comment.

"We've certainly heard that pricing negotiations with Broadcom are tougher since the new management team," Wheeler said, referring to changes that came as a result of Avago acquiring Broadcom for $37 billion in 2015.

How it could impact the Qualcomm deal

Qualcomm is attempting to thwart an unsolicited acquisition offer by Broadcom. Last month, it increased its offer from $110 per share to $127.50 per share to acquire NXP, another semiconductor company. That prompted Broadcom to lower its bid for Qualcomm to $79 per share, or $117 billion, from $82 per share.

Tan's methods to extract higher prices could become a regulatory issue if Qualcomm shareholders decide Broadcom's hostile offer is appealing. A Qualcomm-fortified Broadcom could exert even more force on customers.

Qualcomm shareholders will vote March 6 on up to six new directors for its board nominated by Broadcom. A vote for all six is effectively a vote for a deal. Broadcom representatives have spent the past several weeks speaking to Qualcomm shareholders and highlighting that Broadcom's total shareholder return record couldn't be possible without strong customer relationships, according to a person familiar with the matter.

This week, Sen. John Cornyn (R) asked the Committee of Foreign Investment in the US (CFIUS) to review Broadcom's proposal to buy Qualcomm before March 6, in case Qualcomm investors voted in favor of the Broadcom-supported board members.

Qualcomm, for its part, was sued by the FTC for anticompetitive practices last year. The European Commission fined Qualcomm $1.24 billion for abusing its market dominance in LTE baseband chipsets earlier this year. Apple is also in a legal dispute with Qualcomm that includes allegations of anticompetitive practices.

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