Apple under investigation by US trade agency as Qualcomm legal battle heats up

A regulatory agency has opened an investigation into Apple to determine if the iPhone maker violated fair trade practices and whether imports and sales of some of its mobile devices should be banned in the US.  

The US International Trade Commission (ITC) said today it's voted to look into allegations levied against the tech giant made in a complaint by Qualcomm. Apple and Qualcomm, two long-time partners, are locked in a legal dispute that sees both sides lobbing accusations against one another.  

In the complaint, filed with the ITC last month, Qualcomm alleges Apple used cellular technology in the iPhone and iPad that infringes on one or more claims made in its patents.

The chip maker, perhaps best known for its Snapdragon series, ultimately wants iPhones and iPads that don't use its tech to stop being imported, marketed and sold in the US. These are devices that house Intel modems, according to CNET.

"Qualcomm is pleased with the ITC's decision to investigate Apple's unfair trade practices and the unauthorized importation of products using Qualcomm's patents," Don Rosenberg, executive vice president and general counsel of Qualcomm said in a statement today.

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The investigation will look at "certain mobile electronic devices and radio frequency and processing components thereof," the ITC said.  

The agency named the iPhone 7 and baseband processor modems as examples of the devices and components it will examine. 

As for the timing of events, within the next 45 days, the ITC will come up with a target date to wrap up the investigation. The case still needs to be assigned to a judge, and then an evidentiary hearing will be scheduled and held. The judge will make an initial determination as to whether Apple is in violation, though the larger ITC can review this decision.

It's likely the trial won't begin until next year, and any injunction order against Apple wouldn't go into effect for another 18 months or so. 

This means the upcoming iPhone 8 likely won't be affected by an investigation or ban, at least not at launch. 

The investigation is the latest development in an ongoing legal battle between Apple and Qualcomm. Earlier this year, Apple filed suit against Qualcomm for $1 billion, alleging onerous and anti-competitive patent royalty contract terms that forced Apple to only use Qualcomm chips. 

Qualcomm turned around and filed its own suit against Apple, saying the latter, in part, intentionally slowed down its chips in speed tests to cover up Intel's worse performing chips. 

Now, an official trade agency investigation is underway. There's a high likelihood this case will be settled without any ill effects on the iPhone or iPad, however, Apple isn't backing down. In response to CNET on Tuesday, the company referred to an earlier statement on the matter:

"Qualcomm's illegal business practices are harming Apple and the entire industry. They supply us with a single connectivity component, but for years have been demanding a percentage of the total cost of our products - effectively taxing Apple's innovation."