Infineon, Atmel, Other Card Chip Makers Probed by EU

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European Union regulators inspected offices of Infineon Technologies AG, STMicroelectronics NV, Renesas Technology Corp. and other companies that make microchips for smart cards in an investigation into possible price-fixing.

The companies were raided by officials from the European Commission in several countries on Oct. 21, the antitrust regulator said in a statement today. The Brussels-based agency didn’t name the companies targeted or the countries where the inspections took place.

There is “reason to believe” the companies “may have violated EU treaty rules prohibiting practices such as price fixing, customer allocation and the exchange of commercially sensitive information,” the commission said.

Smart cards are used in mobile phones and other portable electronics for processing digital music and video. Electronic passports and bank-payment cards also use the technology. Eurosmart, an industry association that includes Infineon, Atmel and Renesas, forecast that global smart-card shipments will rise to 5.4 billion units from a forecast of 5.05 billion last year.

Infineon, based in Neubiberg, Germany, near Munich, said in a Dec. 30 U.S. regulatory filing that the commission is probing its chip card and security unit for “alleged violations of antitrust laws.”

“The investigation is in its very early stages, and we are assessing the facts and monitoring the situation carefully,” the company said.

‘Early Stage’

Atmel Corp. said in a Nov. 10 U.S. regulatory filing that commission officials visited the offices of one of the San Jose, California-based company’s units in France and that it’s cooperating.

STMicroelectronics’s offices were visited by commission officials, said Alpana Kar, a director at Paris-based public-relations agency Calyptus, which represents STMicroelectronics, in a phone interview.

“The investigation is at a very early stage and no complaint has been filed,” said Kar.

NXP BV, Europe’s third-largest maker of semiconductors, received questions from the commission about “a possible violation of competition laws” in the market for chips used in cards, Lieke de Jong-Tops, an NXP spokeswoman, said in a telephone interview today. NXP will cooperate with the probe and is answering the commission’s questions, she said.

Renesas’s offices in the U.K. and France were inspected by commission officials, according to Ian Hay, a spokesman for the Tokyo-based company. Renesas, which was established in 2003 by Hitachi Ltd. and Mitsubishi Electric Corp., makes analog chips, microcontrollers, and semiconductors for products including mobile phones and car-navigation systems.

“Renesas is reviewing the situation and we have no further comment,” Hay said.

Under EU law, companies can be fined as much as 10 percent of annual sales for breaking antitrust rules.

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