Did Ericsson really need to spend $1.1B on Nortel's assets?

The irony was not lost on those of us who have been covering the wireless industry for a long time. Ericsson and Nokia, once the staunchest opponents of CDMA technology, found themselves in a bidding war for bankrupt Nortel's CDMA assets. The war ended on Friday with Ericsson on top and willing to pay $1.13 billion for most of Nortel's CDMA and LTE assets.

Ericsson had tried to make a go of it in the North American CDMA market following its purchase of Qualcomm's infrastructure business that was part of its IPR settlement with Qualcomm in 1999. It subsequently ended the business after failing to penetrate this market since Qualcomm didn't have much of an installed base. Nokia, now Nokia Siemens Networks, never tried to play in the North American CDMA market, and thus has a weak North American market share overall at around 5.5 percent.

However, Ericsson this year has made significant headway into the U.S. market, scoring a big LTE deal with Verizon--at the expense of Nortel--and winning a $5 billion CDMA outsourcing agreement with Sprint Nextel. Did it really need to spend $1.13 billion to gain more market share?

The answer is yes. Despite winning these two U.S. deals, the biggest criticism of Ericsson has been its lack of CDMA expertise--whether managing a network or migrating CDMA operators to LTE. Now it has both. Given the fact that Nortel's CDMA gear is in a significant portion of CDMA networks operating around the world, Ericsson now has a great story to tell. It needs that CDMA expertise to migrate customers from CDMA to LTE--especially since voice traffic will continue to run over CDMA networks while data gets routed over LTE for the foreseeable future.

For Ericsson, it's no longer about getting a foot in the door. It's about crushing the competition. Ericsson is looking forward to a future when both WCDMA and CDMA operators look to it to help them migrate to LTE. But as Ericsson CEO Carl-Henric Svanberg said on the conference call this morning, "CDMA will be the first markets to migrate to LTE so therefore it is important to us."

Meanwhile, a deal like this could be the nail in the coffin for some vendors. It's certainly not good news for NSN, which would have boosted its North American market share to 30 percent had it won the assets. And Chinese vendors ZTE and Huawei have been trying hard to make inroads into the North American market through CDMA. This deal certainly hampers those efforts.

And Alcatel-Lucent just saw its major competitor become significantly stronger. Alcatel-Lucent was the vendor with the better CDMA-to-LTE conversion story while Nortel was stuck in bankruptcy limbo.

Of course, it's not just about getting a stronger foothold in LTE. Nortel's CDMA business is a money-maker, and Ericsson executives on the call this morning said they believe the unit will continue to be profitable for the next few years as operators keep investing in their CDMA networks. There are actually operators looking to deploy CDMA EV-DO Rev. B. And don't forget the services market, a major growth engine for Ericsson. Ericsson said the deal will be earnings per share accretive within the first year. --Lynnette

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