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JPMorgan Tech Conference: Nokia Shrugs Off Verizon Rumor and Other Bad Vibes

Nokia (NOK) is keeping its upper lip as stiff as possible.

Investors at the JPMorgan H&Q Tech Conference were looking for signs of a pout Wednesday morning from the Finnish wireless leader on reports that Verizon (VZ) would recall Nokia's CDMA phones and cut off orders for any more current generation CDMA handsets. As the only wireless handset maker that hasn't burst into tears and gone into a tizzy in the past few quarters, this was not a good sign for the wireless equipment market. In recent trading Wednesday, Nokia shares were off $1.11, or 3.2%, to $33.85.

Nokia stayed strong and silent Wednesday. "There's no indication there would be a recall of the phones," said Ulla James, vice president of investor relations. "We will implement a software upgrade on the handset that would make a recall unnecessary." Now, to see if Verizon agrees.

It's just a bug, just a blip, just a close call for the last wireless equipment maker standing, you see? Head of 3G marketing Joe Barrett used up the bulk of his presentation time to paint rays of sunshine about the real issues, the important things, the up-and-coming, third-generation, wireless network technology. Barrett explains that while European 3G licenses may have been expensive and the networks may be tricky, by 2006 his company believes carriers can shake 60% more revenue out of each handset user. By 2010, he expects current revenue per user numbers to double, carried aloft first by text messaging, then video messaging and up the scale of complexity and cost.

For now, however, Nokia is propping up its equipment customers with $2.7 billion of vendor financing to be spent over the next two to three years. James called it "bridge funding," to tide customers over for the next 18 months while they implement the technology. "Before technological viability is proven," she elaborated. "So we share the risk with them."

In the meantime, she stood by the health of Nokia's handset business, the one that investors got nervous about with the aforementioned Verizon ugliness. Nokia wants to have 40% market share in that business, and believes 50% is not impossible in the longer term. Are products selling now that the company has lowered estimates of worldwide handset units to 450 million to 500 million -- a number Nokia stuck to in breakout sessions?

James said inventories aren't building up for Nokia's customers. "They started to go up in the back end of last year," see said. "In the first quarter we had good sell-through and we see more normalized levels by midyear." She agreed that for competitors, inventory is still a big issue: "There are clearly unwanted products in the channel.

J.P. Morgan analyst Brant Thompson added that his research suggests that while mid- and high-range phones are not backed up, the lower end is "going nowhere." He says Nokia does not sell in the low end. Thompson rates Nokia a buy. His firm has not done underwriting for Nokia.

No tears. Still tough. Investors are hoping Nokia can keep it up.

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