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A file photo of a man walking past a company sign at a Nortel Networks office. (NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)
A file photo of a man walking past a company sign at a Nortel Networks office. (NATHAN DENETTE/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Government to review Nortel patent auction Add to ...

After much national hand-wringing over the demise of Nortel Networks Corp., Industry Minister Christian Paradis is asking his department to review the recent sale of the fallen telecom giant's intellectual property in a $4.5-billion (U.S.) auction.

Around 6,000 patents covering everything from social networking to advanced wireless technologies were sold late last week to a consortium of global technology companies that included Apple Inc. , Microsoft Corp. and Canadian BlackBerry maker Research In Motion Ltd. . The sale marks the end of Nortel's storied 116-year history and the spectacular disintegration of a company that, in the decades leading up to the dot com bust in the early 2000s, was a global champion in telecommunications.

The minister is entitled under the Investment Canada act to review any foreign takeover involving Canadian assets in excess of $312-million. Mr. Paradis' predecessor at Industry, Tony Clement, rejected the $36.8-billion (U.S.) takeover of Potash Corp. by BHP Billiton Ltd after considering whether the deal would have been a net benefit to Canada.

In this case, Mr. Paradis has simply asked his officials to look at whether the Investment Canada Act could apply in this case. If they find that it does, the auction sale could be subject to a similar review process to the BHP Billiton bid.

"As a standard practice, the Minister expects officials to look into significant transactions to determine how the Investment Canada Act applies," said the minister's press secretary, Pascale Boulay, in an e-mailed statement.

RIM, which has previously played the nationalist card over other Nortel wireless technology asset auctions, threw in $770-million (U.S.) for the patents, which are viewed as incredibly valuable in an era where mobile technology companies such as Apple and Nokia Corp. are constantly taking each other to court over copyright and patent infringements.

The consortium of which RIM was a part managed to outbid Google Inc. , a key rival to both RIM and Apple in the smart phone space, but most of RIM's co-bidders were either American companies or foreign companies such as Swedish telecom equipment maker Ericsson or Sony Corp. , the Japanese technology icon.

Besides RIM, there was no other serious Canadian bidder in the running for Nortel's huge cache of patents. It is also unclear exactly how the present situation -- in which RIM, a national champion often compared to Nortel in its value to Canada's tech sector, has a significant portion of the patents -- could be improved.

One of the co-bidders, Ericsson, which bought Nortel's wireless business for $1.13-billion, is also a significant investor in the tech ecosystem in Canada, with high tech offices employing engineers in both Montreal and Ottawa. In addition, all of Nortel's previous assets were sold to foreign companies -- and one of the main reasons for the current valuation of these patents is the litigation that has begun to pick up in recent years.

For these reasons, Ronald Gruia, a telecom analyst at Frost & Sullivan in Toronto, thinks it very unlikely that the Industry Minister's officials could find a better situation than the present one, where the assets sold for around five times the price people had expected. But the situation does provide a chance for the Conservative government, with its newfound majority, to lay down clear rules for foreign takeovers -- which the Conservatives promised after the Potash decision.

"What is Industry Canada going to do? Obviously, it's in the best interests of shareholders, and Canadians are being served, in a way, because RIM is getting patents and Ericsson is a big employer of engineers in Canada," Mr. Gruia said. "I don't think it would be likely for them to reverse this."

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