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At first Nokia denied that there was a problem with its phone batteries. Now it has announced that it is replacing up to 46 million batteries used in its mobile phones could overheat and offered to replace them for free while it negotiates with battery maker Matsushita, the owners of Panasonic, over who would bear the costs.

The world’s top cell phone maker said about 100 such incidents had been reported globally, but no serious injuries or property damage had been reported.

“Nokia has identified that in very rare cases the Nokia-branded BL-5C batteries … could potentially experience overheating initiated by a short circuit while charging, causing the battery to dislodge,” it said on Tuesday.

Nokia said it was working closely with Matsushita Electric Industrial Co. Ltd., which made the batteries in question between December 2005 and November 2006, to investigate the problem.

Replacing the batteries would have some financial impact, but Matsushita would pay part of the costs, Nokia said.

Analyst Richard Windsor of Nomura estimated the cost to Nokia at a maximum of 100 million euros ($137 million).

“Historically, when there’s been a problem of this nature the supplier has had to pay,” he said. Research firm Gartner said one such battery would cost around $4.

“I think this will hurt Nokia’s brand a lot and that’s the most precious asset Nokia has,” Jyske analyst Soren Linde Nielsen said.

According to Interbrand, Nokia’s brand is valued at $33.7 billion, making it the world’s fifth most valued brand after the likes of Coca-Cola  and Microsoft.

SPLITTING THE COSTS

Mobile phone maker Sony Ericsson, owned by Sony Corp. and Ericsson , said it depends mostly on batteries from Sony and does not use Matsushita batteries.

Last year, Sony was hit by hefty costs to recall 9.6 million laptop PC batteries that could overheat and catch fire.

A representative for LG said she did not know of any LG cell phones that were affected. Motorola officials were not immediately available for comment. Samsung representative Kim Titus said the company had not sued regarding batteries from Matsushita in any of its handsets and would not be affected.

The “BL-5C” is Nokia’s most widely used battery, powering its low-end 1100 series phones and multimedia handsets N70 and N91, among others. Several suppliers have made a total of more than 300 million of them for Nokia.

Nokia said it had issued a product advisory (http://www.nokia.com/batteryreplacement) to consumers based on preliminary findings from its investigation.

“By reacting swiftly and responsibly, and by being fully transparent, we believe that consumers will continue to view Nokia as a responsible and trustworthy brand,” Robert Andersson, Nokia’s head of customer and market operations, told Reuters.

Matsushita said there had been a rare problem in the manufacturing process rather than in the design of the batteries. It said the effect on its earnings was uncertain.

“We are still in discussion with Nokia about how to divide the replacement cost,” said Matsushita spokesman Akira Kadota.

Nokia spokeswoman Marianne Holmlund said that in similar cases in the car industry, less than half of consumers eligible for replacement had used the option.

In 2003, a Belgian consumer organization said some Nokia batteries had a short circuit risk, but the Finnish firm denied those claims and said media reports of exploding phone batteries were all related to counterfeits.

 

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