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EU quizzes telcos on Apple sales tactics against rivals

Umbrellas are seen in front of the Apple store on 5th Avenue in New York May 19, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Thayer
Umbrellas are seen in front of the Apple store on 5th Avenue in New York May 19, 2013. REUTERS/Eric Thayer

By Foo Yun Chee and Michael Perry

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - EU antitrust regulators are seeking information whether Apple's iPhone distribution deals with mobile telecoms operators may be aimed at shutting out rival smartphones makers, in a move which could lead to a formal investigation into Apple.

In a nine-page questionnaire sent to mobile telecoms companies last Friday and obtained by Reuters, the European Commission said such behavior may breach EU antitrust rules.

The questionnaire followed informal complaints from telecoms operators against Apple late last year related to handset subsidies and marketing for carrying its smartphones and tablets, sources have told Reuters.

Such surveys are a typical procedure in antitrust cases which helps the Commission determine whether to open a case against companies or reject complaints.

"The Commission has information indicating that Apple and mobile network operators have concluded distribution agreements which may potentially lead to the foreclosure of other smartphone manufacturers from the market," the questionnaire said.

Telecoms operators were asked whether Apple obliged them to buy a minimum volume of iPhones, provide preferential treatment for marketing iPhones, set a certain level of subsidies and ensure Apple receives the same or better terms given to rivals.

Regulators were also keen to know if Apple restricted the companies from using the iPhone5 in their 4G/LTE networks. The deadline for replies is June 17.

European and U.S. operators typically pay hefty subsidies to smartphone makers including Apple. Customers get discounts on such devices in return for signing on to two-year wireless contracts, a key source of revenues for operators.

Smartphones account for 49.3 percent of mobile phones sold globally in the first quarter, according to research company Gartner. Samsung Electronic is the world's most-used smartphone brand.

(Editing by Ian Geoghegan and James Jukwey)