By Jussi Rosendahl and Tuomas Forsell
HELSINKI (Reuters) - Finnish network equipment maker Nokia reported on Thursday a slowing rate of sales decline, saying the global networks market was showing signs of recovery.
Nokia and its rivals, Sweden's Ericsson and China's Huawei Technologies, have struggled in recent years as telecom operators' demand for faster 4G mobile broadband equipment has peaked, and upgrades to next-generation 5G equipment are still years away.
Nokia said the business momentum was now improving: first-quarter network sales fell 6 percent from a year earlier to 4.9 billion euros ($5.3 billion), compared with a decline of 14 percent in the previous quarter.
"We slowed the rate of topline decline and generated healthy orders in what is typically a seasonally weak quarter for us... We saw encouraging stabilization in Mobile Networks topline," Chief Executive Rajeev Suri said in a statement.
"I am optimistic about the year ahead, even if cautiously so."
Nokia repeated that it expects its networks sales to decline in the full year, in line with the market.
Its first-quarter group earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) fell 1 percent from a year earlier to 341 million euros, slightly ahead of analysts' average forecast of 334 million euros in a Reuters poll.
Last year, Nokia bought Franco-American networks firm Alcatel-Lucent in response to industry changes, and is currently axing thousands of jobs as it seeks to cut 1.2 billion euros of annual costs by 2018.
That deal is seen as helping Nokia outperform rival Ericsson, which earlier this week posted a quarterly operating loss.
(Reporting by Jussi Rosendahl and Tuomas Forsell)