TORONTO (Reuters) - The chances that Research in Motion will enter a formal bid for the wireless assets of bankrupt Nortel Networks are slim as a bidding war develops for technology coveted by the world’s leading telecom-equipment makers.
Nortel’s CDMA and LTE wireless technology business goes up for auction on Friday, and at least three bids, ranging from $650 million through $730 million, are on the table. A winning bid for the assets, which may lead mobile technology into the next generation, could emerge almost immediately, barring any objections that the bankruptcy court decides to entertain.
Waterloo, Ontario-based RIM, maker of the popular BlackBerry smartphones, is the most likely party to cry foul, but any protest it may make would come too late to stop the process, analysts say.
The company said this week that Nortel had effectively blocked it from submitting a bid worth $1.1 billion, more than 50 percent higher than the next closest competitor, by imposing unreasonable conditions.
“I‘m not sure that the courts will allow RIM back in. I think the probability is very low,” said Peter Misek, a Toronto-based analyst with Canaccord Adams.
“Once you get a creditors’ committee and you get all stakeholders agreeing (on an) auction process ... to extract the most value, then breaking that auction process or making exceptions ... is a detriment to bondholders and to stakeholders,” he said.
Nortel says it applied the same conditions to all bids, which were due by Tuesday afternoon, including confidentiality agreements and a condition that the winner not bid for other Nortel assets for a year without the company’s consent.
RIM can object to the auction process and results at a hearing on July 28, but experts doubt objections will prevail.
If RIM was unhappy with the way the assets are packaged, it should have objected when the auction process was being formalized, said Anthony Sabino, a corporate attorney and professor of law and business at St. John’s University in New York.
“RIM now wants to overturn that process and that’s a very difficult road. I would be very doubtful that they (RIM) would prevail at this point,” Sabino said.
Toronto-based Nortel is a Canadian corporate icon, which employed 90,000 people globally in its heyday, when it was one of the world’s largest companies and the slightest shift in its stock price could move entire markets.
The company, which now employs about 30,000, filed for bankruptcy protection in Canada and the United States in January, blaming the economic crisis for derailing the latest of several turnaround efforts that began in 2005.
Last month it announced a “stalking horse” bid for its CDMA and LTE wireless technology businesses to Nokia Siemens Networks for $650 million, effectively setting a minimum price.
CDMA is a wireless technology widely used in the United States. Long term evolution (LTE) is an emerging high-speed wireless technology that many of the world’s biggest operators have said they would use for future network upgrades.
Other bids include a $725 million offer from MatlinPatterson, a private equity firm that’s also a major Nortel creditor. Sweden’s Ericsson came in at $730 million, according to Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper.
“What does this mean? ... It means that guys like RIM and a bunch of others have seen that, down the pipe, 3G is a legacy technology that’s on an upgrade path to 4G,” said Misek, referring to the next generation of wireless technology.
The bids are preliminary and analysts expect a much higher final price tag, although maybe not as high as the RIM bid that never formally materialized.
“They don’t have a bid in. They are not a number that Ericsson thinks it has to beat,” said Duncan Stewart, an analyst at DSAM Consulting in Toronto, referring to a RIM bid.
“If the auction terminates on Friday or on Monday, the way it’s expected to, RIM doesn’t have a hope.”
While most observers consider it unlikely, the rules of the game could change radically if Canada’s government steps in and stops the asset sale on the grounds they are strategic to national security.
Ottawa has very seldom intervened in deal-making in the past. In fact, last year marked the first time it had prevented the sale of a domestic company to a foreign buyer.
The deal in question was the proposed $1.33 billion sale of MacDonald Dettwiler and Associates’ satellite technology business to U.S.-based Alliant Techsystems Inc.
Canada had first halted the deal in part because it feared it might lose control over top-secret satellite images.
Thus far, the government has said it will let the courts decide the fate of RIM’s so-called blocked bid, although Industry Minister Tony Clement urged the two companies to meet and try to find a way for a Canadian company to stay in the running for the assets.
Late on Thursday, RIM said it was still interested in pursuing a bid, and that it was in talks with Nortel stakeholders to find a way for its “generous” offer to be considered.
“The situation can still be resolved in a manner that serves Canadian stakeholders,” RIM said in a statement e-mailed to Reuters.
Reporting by Pav Jordan; Additional reporting by Wojtek Dabrowski and Euan Rocha; Editing by Frank McGurty and Rob Wilson