Arik Hesseldahl

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Qualcomm Makes It Official, Grabs Atheros for $3.1 Billion

Qualcomm, the chipmaker devoted to the wireless handset business, announced today the first major tech acquisition of the year, and the biggest deal in its history, saying it will pay $3.1 billion in cash for Atheros, a chipmaker whose business is in wireless networking.

As I noted yesterday, there are lots of reasons for Qualcomm to want Atheros, not the least of which is its extensive customer list.

Qualcomm’s specialty has always been in CDMA technology, the flavor of mobile phone technology favored by Verizon Wireless and Sprint, and it collects considerable royalties around its patent portfolio there. It has struggled to penetrate other markets, and last year shuttered its FloTV operation amid minimal demand. The good news was that it sold its FloTV spectrum to AT&T for $1.93 billion, which is no doubt offsetting the cost of this deal. Add that to the $10.3 billion in cash and short-term investments on its balance sheet as of Sept. 26 and this is an easy deal to do.

It’s also the biggest deal in Qualcomm’s history and the first significant one under CEO Paul Jacobs, who is the son of founder Irwin Jacobs.

Atheros shareholders have plenty of reasons to smile today as well. The company’s stock price surged by 19 percent yesterday. At $45 a share, Qualcomm is paying more than Atheros has ever been worth in its entire history as a publicly held company. As Shira Ovide over at Deal Journal notes, its highest price before yesterday was $43.90. Happy New Year, indeed.

I caught up with Qualcomm Executive Vice President Steve Mollenkopf and Atheros CEO Craig Barratt to talk about the deal.

NewEnterprise: Steve, let’s start with you. What got Qualcomm interested in Atheros?

Mollenkopf: Historically Qualcomm has been focused on the cellular phone, though recently we’ve done much more than that. We had some integration relationships with some companies that allow us to deliver a platform to our customers. They’re essentially technical relationships, and one of those companies was Atheros. So we were familiar with them. But the real reason, the why Atheros and why now question comes down to this. We think the industry is moving to a place where a lot of the technology and use cases that are being created as part of the shift to smartphones will be used outside of just phones, and will move into many adjacent spaces. The requirement of technology and different customers overlap a lot with Atheros. They’re a leader in their space, we’re a leader in ours and we want to go into markets that will require the expertise from both of us. It seemed natural, actually.

Craig, the idea for the acquisition seems to have grown out of an existing partnership. When did the talk turn from being Qualcomm’s partner to becoming part of Qualcomm?

Barratt: The partnership has gone on for about five years, where we’ve cooperated on joint reference and designs and software and feature integration. Over the years we’ve broadened out from Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, GPS, powerline and optical networking. We do have a much more horizontal business. Qualcomm has a very strong vertical business. Through our partnership we saw the teams had a good cultural fit, the engineering teams really respect each other. When we looked at our own strategic imperatives over the long term, we saw that cellular technologies are going to be applied in a much broader markets over time, beyond just smartphones and tablets. There’s an intersection between the Qualcomm technology and our technology, and that’s only going to increase. You’ve probably heard that set-top boxes and things like that are going to start to run Android. So a lot of these mobile technologies are going to start showing up in things like the connected home. Strategically it all started to make sense.

And what will your new job be at Qualcomm?

Barratt: After the acquisition closes, which should be in the first half of 2011, my role will be president of Qualcomm Networking and Connectivity, reporting to Steve.

Steve, if I’m not mistaken, this is the biggest deal that Qualcomm has ever done.

Mollenkopf: You’re correct. For us on the Qualcomm side this is a big step toward expanding our business beyond our traditional platform business and we’re doing it in a way that is in line with how the industry is changing. A lot of the things we’ve been doing with Atheros are things we’ve already been doing as part of our relationship, so this is a natural next step.

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