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FTC confirms decision to let Apple bid on Nortel patent trove


United States anti-trust regulators confirmed Thursday that they have granted Apple clearance to participate in a high-stakes bidding war for the assets of bankrupt Nortel Networks Corp, which could afford the winner a material edge in the future of smartphone and wireless technologies.

Apple's clearance was noted in a list of approved transactions released Thursday by the Federal Trade Commission, according to a report by the The Wall Street Journal, which added that the U.S. Justice Department has been examining potential bids on Nortel's assets for possible competitive violations.

Among those assets up for grabs is a so-called treasure trove of some "6,000 patents spanning key portions of the modern world, including wireless video, Wi-Fi, Internet search and a next-generation mobile-data technology now being adopted by carriers, known as LTE."

Nortel, a Canadian maker of telecommunications equipment, filed for bankruptcy in January 2009 and agreed to sell the patent portfolio to Google for $900 million unless a competitor bids more at an auction next Monday, June 27, to take place at the law offices of Nortel’s U.S. law firm, Cleary Gottlieb Steen & Hamilton LLP.

Previous auctions for Nortel's assets held at the same location have reportedly lasted for more than 24-hours, with several rounds of bidding ultimately raising more than $3 billion to pay off Nortel's creditors. A spokesmen for Nortel confirmed the company has no plans to make any information about the bidding public until after it picks a winner.

Microsoft, Hewlett- Packard and Nokia were among technology companies that objected to the sale of Nortel's portfolio to Google, saying in court papers the deal might not guarantee them continued access to technologies they currently have a right to use in their products.

In addition to Apple, heavyweights such as Intel and Ericsson AB will "vie with Google" to buy a trove of 6,000 patents from the telecom-equipment maker. RPX, a firm that preemptively purchases patents for clients to prevent them from being wielded, has also reportedly been accepted as a "qualified bidder."

The auction was originally scheduled to take place on June 20, but was moved to June 27 due to a "significant level of interest" from other companies. People familiar with the matter said Apple and Intel had been accepted as separate bidders, while Ericsson and RPX were accepted as part of one or more consortiums.

Sources said earlier this month the U.S. Department of Justice had concluded an antitrust investigation into Google's $900 million starting bid for the collection. The DOJ reportedly didn't find any "major competitive" issues with Google's interest in the patents, and has had greater concerns about Apple.

Companies are interested in the group of patents mostly because it contains key technologies related to the fourth-generation Long Term Evolution standard, though Wi-Fi and social networking patents are also included in the lot. The presence of the LTE patents has raised concerns that the winner of the auction could gain an unfair advantage over competitors in the 3G 'arms race.'

BlackBerry maker RIM had been rumored to be "weighing an offer" to outbid Google, but the company's recent financial troubles make a bid seem unlikely. Apple on the other hand maintains a war chest of roughly $70 billion in liquid cash, clearly positioning it as a front-runner to a face-off with Google should the iPhone maker so choose.